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Shostakovich is made to fit in

The Kirov plays his sober works strongly as part of the gala at the new Segerstrom.

October 12, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE fifth, six and seventh of Dimitri Shostakovich's 15 symphonies are among the most exalted and surprisingly lasting epics of the Soviet ideal, in addition to being depictions of the Soviet reality -- which under Stalin often deviated far from the ideal. In a serious and high-minded way, they were created to serve the proletariat, or at least the sophisticated, musically minded high end of the proletariat.

But in one of the great reversals of fortune, today's most renowned Russian exponents of Shostakovich, Valery Gergiev and his Kirov Orchestra, placed these symphonies into the cheerful festivities Sunday and Tuesday nights surrounding the opening of the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

There was much to celebrate. The concert hall -- opened almost four weeks ago but not yet complete acoustically or physically (no working drinking fountains on Tuesday) -- excellently accommodated rafter-raising symphonic music. At 100, the long-suffering Shostakovich -- whose birthday was last month -- has reached the pinnacle of international acceptance 31 years after his death. And the Soviet Union is dead.

This privately funded hall is built on the capitalist model. The bridge between OCPAC and the South Coast Plaza shopping paradise is physical, symbolic and probably spiritual. Henry Segerstrom takes credit for both the plaza and center, for using commerce to serve art and expecting art to attract customers for commerce.

As part of the Center's Mariinsky Theatre Festival of opera, concerts and ballet imported from St. Petersburg, Russia, Gergiev has squeezed Shostakovich into a busy week that also has him conducting full productions of Wagner's "Ring" cycle and four performances of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in the center's larger, original Segerstrom Hall. Tonight, he'll add even more Shostakovich with two late symphonies (Nos. 12 and 14) along with the First Piano Concerto.

Russia is a changed country since the fall of communism but not yet comfortable with capitalism. Workers, free now to profit, are not always protected. Western musicians accustomed to the safety net of union regulations might well accuse Gergiev of exploiting his crew in their marathon of eight days and nights of opera and concerts. And like most consumers in the West, we don't necessarily like to think about exactly what kind of labor goes into imported products.

Still, this marvelous collective of dedicated, mostly young, fabulously talented musicians is at least there to be seen. And no one in all of music appears to work harder than the tireless Gergiev.

But what does it all mean?

The symphonies were presented backward, beginning with the Seventh on Sunday evening played by the combined Pacific Symphony and Kirov Orchestra, 110 musicians strong. The concert was one in a series of galas. Audiences were formally attired and served free Champagne. Many paid dearly for their tickets and the dinner afterward. Most had come for their first look at and listen to the new auditorium. The mood was festive.

How does one, then, enter into the Seventh, written in 1941 during the siege of Leningrad? Its premiere was a notable occasion. Audiences risked their safety to attend. They shivered. Their stomachs growled. They were fearful and profoundly sad. They were also profoundly grateful to Shostakovich. He served an orchestral cruet of hope for a suffering city.

The symphony, nearly 80 minutes long, sounds cheap to some. But the Nazi bolero in the first movement, the emotion-laden movement that goes on forever and the patriotic finale might resonate in a war-torn world.

The Seventh was preceded Sunday by the Pacific Symphony giving a crisp account of Stravinsky's wartime Symphony in Three Movements, forcefully conducted by Carl St.Clair and featuring World War II footage projected onto the organ pipes.

The Tuesday program of the Sixth Symphony followed by the Fifth was a Philharmonic Society presentation of the Kirov Orchestra by itself. Both begin with soul-wrenching first movements and end with stand-up-and-cheer finales. The Fifth, Shostakovich's most famous score, saved his skin by winning Stalin's approval.

Gergiev did not conduct politically charged performances. A normally dramatic conductor, he appeared unusually restrained, whether from overwork, over-exposure to the scores (he's been busily touring them) or simply caution, there was no way to know. Last summer he conducted a more engagingly theatrical performance of the Seventh in Stockholm as part the Baltic Sea Festival. The trick of using two orchestras (something he likes to do with this symphony) gets impressively loud sound effects but is ultimately confining.

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