By Ted Ayala
When the Soviet Union’s cultural apparatchiks called upon the then 26-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich to provide an opera to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution, they probably weren’t counting on it featuring a stark raving mad half-man/half-ape as protagonist. But together with his librettist Alexei Tolstoy, a relation of Leo Tolstoy, that’s exactly what he fashioned.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAPO) scored a major cultural coup on Friday night with their world premiere of that hitherto unperformed operatic fragment, entitled “Orango.” The composer’s widow, Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, was in the audience, lending the performance a real sense of occasion.
Originally envisioned to be a full three-act work with prologue, Shostakovich never got beyond the prologue, which was found in the composer’s archives by musicologist Olga Disonskaya in 2004.
And if the work’s premise seemed ill suited to the pompous, tub-thumping celebrating the creation of the Soviet Union, that’s nothing compared to the music. This is Shostakovich at his youthful best: sassy foxtrots, mock genteel waltzes and more hurdling over each other in a cavalcade of ironic wit.
Existing only in piano and vocal score, it was up to British musicologist Gerard McBurney to flesh out the work’s orchestration. Making a careful study of the composer’s theatre work of the era, McBurney realized the orchestration superbly, divining the composer’s orchestration with nearly all the sureness of the composer himself. On top of the standard orchestra there were car horns and a flexatone. Even a banjo was thrown in for good measure. McBurney remained true to the work’s madcap nature, and succeeded brilliantly.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, the LAPO’s emeritus conductor, led the proceedings and had the orchestra on the peak of its very considerable form. The performers, most notably Ryan McKinney as the wonderfully smarmy Entertainer, were outstanding. Local tenor Timur Bekbosunov nearly stole the show in his role as a French journalist who jumped up to Salonen’s podium to harangue the conductor.
Peter Sellars’ semi-staged production was mellower and less strident than what this often controversial artist produces. His zany third-wall breaking antics – with the highlight being Orango running into the audience in crazed rage, only to be restrained by an actual Disney Hall security officer – were a delight. Only the somewhat shoe-horned references to the recent Occupy movement seemed somewhat discordant.
As charming as much of the work was, there was no doubt that Shostakovich, despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, simply phoned much of this score in. A good half of this score consisted of previously composed material from other contemporaneous theatre works. The borrowings ran thick and fast, with bleeding chunks from his ballet “The Golden Age,” Nikolai Akimov’s controversial production of “Hamlet,” and another unfinished opera “The Big Lightning” elbowing each other by turns. The overture of Orango was lifted note-for-note from Shostakovich’s ballet “The Bolt.” Though no masterpiece, the work, nevertheless, presents fascinating insight into the young composer’s workshop.
Sharing the program, however, was a work that is undoubtedly one of the composer’s masterpieces.
The “Symphony No. 4,” the product of some four years of unusually protracted labor for this composer, tore the smiling mask of “Orango” off to reveal the gaping darkness of this grim period in Russian history.
Coming after a period of careful study of Beethoven and Mahler, the “Symphony No. 4” was Shostakovich’s first bid to gain himself a spot along the symphonic heavyweights of the past. Two colossal movements totaling nearly 30 minutes each sandwich a brief, spectral, Mahlerian scherzo that echoes with the ghosts from the Austrian composer’s Second and Seventh symphonies. The composer consciously modeled the structure of the symphony’s first movement, albeit in a wholly idiosyncratic way, on the corresponding movements of the Beethoven and Mahler Third Symphonies. In the months leading to the work’s scheduled December 1936 premiere, the composer’s friend and doyen of Russian musicologists Ivan Sollertinsky proclaimed to journalists that the symphony was the composer’s “credo,” and that it would be “Shostakovich’s Eroica.” It was to no avail. By late 1936 the composer had become fearful for his livelihood and his life. He withdrew the symphony and it would remain unplayed until December 1961.
The performance marked a sharp turn-around for the LAPO’s emeritus conductor. Once refusing to conduct Shostakovich’s music at all, Salonen has now become one of the era’s most compelling exponents of the composer’s works.
Neither Salonen nor the LAPO disappointed. Refracting the music through his classicist’s lens, Salonen vividly brought the work’s architecture into high relief. But if he kept a cool hand in this often wild work, he also knew where to let his orchestra off the leash. The colossal galloping climax of the first movement piled through the hall with all the insensate inevitability of a freight train at full speed. His handling of the finale’s “false” coda left the audience awestruck; it’s quintuple-forte perorations pinning the listener to his seat. But what ultimately lingered in the memory were the closing bars’ eerie, glacial C-minor pedal point, and its lone celesta trailing off into the void.
If ever one were in doubt that this orchestra is indeed the finest in the country, this performance would have dispelled any such notions.
This performance will be broadcast next year on KUSC and will also be available for download through Deutsche Grammophon’s DG Concerts series on iTunes.