Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony -- the powerful single work on the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts over the weekend -- comes with lots of extraneous weight. Composed largely (the first three movements) during the Nazi siege of that city, the symphony was first hailed in the West as an expression of stirring defiance from a worthy ally.
After the Cold War set in, it began to be regarded as a piece of Soviet bombast and claptrap, and the composer as a mouthpiece for a repressive regime.
Hungarian Bela Bartok, himself a bitter and self-exiled foe of fascism, ridiculed the obsessively repetitive march theme of the work's first movement in his Concerto for Orchestra, speeding up its tempo and launching a few trombone raspberries at it so that listeners wouldn't miss his point.
Then, with the publication of the explosive and still contested "Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich" in 1979, everything the composer had said and written suddenly had to be reevaluated. To make a complicated, nearly unbearable story short: The enemy depicted in the "Leningrad" Symphony -- and in all of his works -- was every totalitarian system, including the one Shostakovich anguished under.
Esa-Pekka Salonen had been planning to conduct the work but bowed out because he needed time to complete a composition for a June premiere in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Into the breach stepped Vassily Sinaisky, music director of the Moscow Philharmonic from 1991 to 1996 and the Russian State Orchestra from 2000 to 2002.
Surely Sinaisky brought an authentic perspective that it would be folly to argue with. At the "Casual Friday" concert, he opened the symphony with a muscular, noble account of the homeland theme that emerges triumphantly at the end of the work.
He built the notorious march or "invasion" theme from a distant whisper -- heard impeccably in the Disney Hall acoustics -- into a terrifying, sickening war machine.
He oversaw all the big orchestral sections with masterly control. The orchestra played splendidly. The list of players who contributed important solo moments would be quite long. In a way, the "Leningrad" is its own concerto for orchestra.
Yet the middle movements sounded too sweet, too comforting to do their desolation justice. Characterization other conductors have found eluded Sinaisky. Perhaps there hadn't been enough time to work out all the details. Even so, the "Leningrad" emerged essentially as the inspiring powerhouse it is.