Over the last few weeks I’ve devoted a fair amount of space here critiquing the Minnesota Orchestra. I make no apologies for doing so. But I want to shift gears and present an argument for why you definitely should see the concerts this weekend.
And trust me, you really should.
The marquee, “meat and potatoes” work is Shostakovitch’s Tenth Symphony. The symphony is a marvel, one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant symphonies composed at a time when nearly everyone else had abandoned the form. Written in the early 1950s in the wake of Stalin’s death, it explodes with emotion and ideas; it is clear the work was a massive catharsis for a composer who had continually run afoul of Soviet authorities.
If we are to believe the controversial book, Testimony, which purports to be a series of interviews the composer gave in secret, the work was specifically composed as a denunciation of the Stalin era—and the second movement was a savage portrait of the bloodthirsty dictator himself.
Whether or not this is literally true, Shostakovitch clearly let loose in a cry of righteous anger, not just for his own sufferings, but for his friends and colleagues that had been silenced by the Stalin regime. More important, Shostakovitch gives himself the last laugh by ending in a note of triumph, as is to say, “I took everything you threw at me, and I survived!”
I certainly know what I’ll be thinking about while listening to this music.
But this isn’t the only work on the program. More personally meaningful for me is the opening work, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.
This is one of those pieces that everyone loves, because it offers something for everyone. Elgar breathed new life into the idea of “theme and variations” by presenting each variation as if it had been composed by one of his dear friends or family members (or in one case, a bulldog). The work brims with inside jokes, clever aliases, puns and musical quotes, giving rise to endless speculation about deeper and hidden meanings.
But the work is more than an intellectual exercise. Elgar vividly captures the essence of each person’s personality, and presents each with extraordinary flair, warmth, and good humor. As the piece ends, you feel you’ve spent the evening at a hugely enjoyable cocktail party with all of them.
On a more personal note, the work stirs deep emotional memories for me—particularly the famous “Nimrod” variation.
My first day of working full-time with the Orchestra was September 10, 2001, and obviously the bombings occurred the next day. Everyone who lived through that time can no doubt remember the horrible feelings of that week, an equal mixture of fear, bewilderment, and uncertainty. These fused into a sort of emotional numbness for me, as I focused on just getting through each day simply by muscle memory. That week also signaled the start of the Orchestra’s season, and like many people I think I attended the season opening dutifully and without much conviction.
And I had an extraordinary experience.
Music Director Eiji Oue opened the concert, as per tradition, with an emotional performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, which took on levels of meaning I can’t describe. But then he addressed the audience. The “Enigma” Variations were scheduled for later on in the program, but Eiji explained that given the recent events, he wanted to perform “Nimrod” on its own to open the concert, and to dedicate it not just to the fallen, but to all of us as a moment of respect and healing.
“Nimrod” is often used at funerals, not because it wails in grief but because it soars with hope. And that was the case that evening. Through the rich rise and fall of that gorgeous music… we did heal. Our uncertainty was lifted, if just for a few moments. And we came together as a community. At the piece’s end, Eiji lowered his arms, and we sat in absolute silence for several minutes, unwilling to let go of that powerful moment. I don’t remember tears, so much as a profound feeling of calm and light. Eiji and the Orchestra gave us something we sorely needed.
Please go, and hear this astonishing work for yourself. Its wonderful healing power is still needed today.