The Other Side of Entertainment

"Nothing communicates better than art. It is quicker than language and clearer than philosophy." Frederick Weisman

"If the key is in question in Shostakovich, it's always in the minor." Gunther Herbig

I've been using Twitter to query my followers about the value of music and the arts. I was curious if people thought there is a purpose to classical music beyond entertainment. According to Wikipedia, entertainment "consists of any activity which provides a diversion or permits people to amuse themselves in their leisure time."

One person wrote of the value of classical music, "To cultivate a healthy mind, it's needed!" Another said " Music is the one language we all understand." Another said good classical music helps us "explore truths and open conversations beyond wordly understanding".

But few can explain how and why some music goes beyond mere entertainment. Music can challenge the audience to a wide range of emotions from bleak to angry to ecstatic.

Some of the music on program of this weekends Columbus Symphony concerts may stir the listener to more than a lulled state of amusement. We're are playing two pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich, his 10th Symphony in E minor Op. 93 and his Piano Concerto No. 2, in F major Op. 102 written for his son, Maxim. Gunther Herbig leads, with his wife Jutta Czapski playing the piano concerto.

The Symphony was first performed soon after the death of Stalin in 1953. It was his first symphonic work since his (second) "denunciation" by Stalin's government in 1948.

The first movement opening is bleak, desolate. A ruminative, only mildly optimistic theme is played by the clarinet and developed, almost bitterly, by the rest of the orchestra. Glimmers of hope (major chords) are but passing shadows. A second theme, introduced by the flute, is jovial by comparison, waltz-like, but certainly not what I would call happy. When the clarinet returns with the first theme, the solo seems to wander aimlessly before finding the theme again. Later the bassoons take the theme and darken it more with their plaintive tones.

The second movement, probably the most famous in the symphony, is said to be a "portrait of Stalin." I found this video on YouTube which makes the point quite clear. It is relentlessly angry and violent, miltaristic and unstoppable.

The third movement is again waltz-like, but not light in spirit. It communicates more sarcasm and irony, an almost creepy drunken mood, a sodden, bitter smile: Dark circus music. A horn solo, repeated numerous times in the middle, signifies Shostakovich's name (thumbing his nose at Stalin?), and his love for a student named Elmira Nazirova.

The fourth movement, after an alternately tender and eerie slow opening for oboe, flute and bassoon solos, goes into another ironically humorous theme which builds to the ecstatic, if not happy, ending.

This symphony is surprisingly well known and loved by audiences. Why? It seems to reach out and draw the listener in, not so much to entertain, but to offer an emotional glimpse of one of the darkest periods in human history.

Luckily the piano concerto is un-customarily sunny for Shostakovich, and should be a nice balance for the program.

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