OAKLAND—The enigmatic composer Dmitri Shostakovich left us a profound final symphony, in some ways showing as much versatility as the works of Mahler. The Oakland Symphony revived it in grand fashion at its opening concert Oct. 20.
His Symphony No. 15 was supposedly a human’s life cycle, from birth to death. But my own theory is that it was somewhere between an autobiography and a valedictorian statement——-Shostakovich at his most candid and eloquent—at least, as much as was possible under the watchful ears of the Soviet Union’s repressive commissars.
The work is peppered with musical quotations, from “The William Tell Overture” to “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” and “Liebestod” (Wagner) to his own output. These are clearly personal ruminations over his life as he entered the senior-citizen phase.
After the playroom episodes, the work deepens in the second “adulthood” movement, which is brooding, pensive, enigmatic. The horns come out is disagreements, then a ruminative cello solo (Daniel Reiter) deviating from tonality. The brass returns, chromatic but mellow. After a trombone solo (Bruce Chrisp), a close without a cadence. And then the finale, with its reflections on the end of life. The piece was illuminated by the sterling solos of Concertmaster Terrie Baune.
The strength of the Oakland personnel lies primarily in the robust string sections and the trombones.
The concert had opened with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. How to play that famous di-di-di-DAH opening theme? The old romantics called them the Blows of Fate, and played vehemently. Some Viennese maestros dispute that, saying that nothing in the score makings suggests that, and besides, the first note isn’t even on a downbeat. Morgan leans to the first interpretation, with an overachieving, overzealous brass section.
Whether or not vehement, Beethoven himself was a rebellious new voice, with dissonances accepted today but surely horrifying to audiences back then. Notable is his reluctance to harmonize the bass pedal point while the others play a restless theme surreptitiously above it, leading into the great climactic outburst in the finale.
OAKLAND PERSPECTIVES—When will they do a case study of the Oakland Symphony, a midsize orchestra in a community with limited financial resources? Even with the limitation of itinerant parttime players filling other ensembles to make a living, the O.S. crew seems to do everything right: The players and maestro active in in-public-school programs; a streamlined modest staff; a faithful corps of players, some of whom weathered the O.S. bankruptcy in the mid-1980s and still going strong; a healthy and incredibly diverse audience clearly in love with the ensemble; and both the maestro and choral director (Lynne Morrow) African-American. In addition, they have preconcert lectures as well as live lobby music. And for Michael Morgan’s 60th birthday celebration, they offered free champagne to all after the concert. Talk about good PR!
A personal note: I had heard Morgan as a rather green 17-year-old competing against twentysomethings in the Baltimore Symphony Conductors Competition circa 1975. His Brahms was uniquely invigorating—the only time in life I ever jumped out of my chair and stood against the wall to see and hear this exciting novice. Lacking the stick discipline of others, he was marked down and given a mere Honorable Mention by academic judges. But, after Oberlin, he forged a podium career far beyond any of the three contestants who finished ahead of him. Talent tells!!!
Oakland Symphony, Michael Morgan music director, Oct. 20 at the Paramount Theater, Oakland, first of six 2017-18 Classical Series concerts. For info: (510) 444-0802, or go online.