A revolutionary evening

Juneau Symphony to perform Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 this weekend at JDHS

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2009

When thinking of revolutionaries, musical composers don't often come to mind. However, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 was a revolutionary piece of music that helped lift the composer to prominence in the mid 20th Century, Juneau Symphony musical director Kyle Wiley Pickett said.

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Katie Spielberger / Capital City Weekly
Katie Spielberger / Capital City Weekly

"This piece, it's kind of your traditional story of darkness moving to light, only the light in this case is tinged with darkness too," he said.

The piece, reportedly first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1937 to an ovation of 40 minutes, will highlight the Juneau Symphony's winter concert titled "Russian Revolution" this weekend. Performances at the Juneau-Douglas High School Auditorium will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday and a pay-as-you-can performance will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 in advance or $22 at the door for Friday's performance and are available at Hearthside Books or on the organization's Web site.

Pickett describes Shostakovich as the most important of the Soviet-era composers, and a man that lived a storied life.

"Shostakovich really lived his life under the thumb of Joseph Stalin personally," he said.

Although now regarded as one of the most popular composers of the mid-20th century, Shostakovich would live to see two official denunciations of his music during his career under Soviet rule.

"He's a guy who at one point in his life he was sleeping outside his apartment door with a packed suitcase because he said it, 'wasn't a matter of if they came and got him, but when they were going to come and take him away,'" Pickett said. "And he thought that if he was outside they would just take him and leave his family alone. That's the mindset of Shostakovich when he is writing this piece."

Pickett said Symphony No. 5 is a particularly interesting piece because Shostakovich used it to get back in favor with the Soviet government.

"It's incredible because he managed to write a piece that got him back into the good graces of the Soviet power structure and yet is at the same time incredibly subversive of these totalitarian ideas," he said.

At the time it was written, the composer reportedly said the symphony "is a Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism," responding to the denunciation of his music in 1936 and his apparent recommitment to the powers that be.

Pickett said the piece was actually the opposite and said the symbolic end to the symphony represents a "forced joy."

"After Stalin died, Shostakovich was giving his memoirs and he said 'you know, anybody who thought that really didn't understand the work,'" Pickett said. "He said 'the truth is, this is the work where it was as if someone were beating you with a stick, saying 'your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you walked away saying 'our business is rejoicing.'"

Pickett said it is a powerful symphony that has its own uniqueness when seen live.

"The experience of sitting there in the audience and feeling the immense power of the forces and the kind of emotional punch the piece has, it's really a unique experience to see it live," he said. "Don't miss this one. This one you want to see."

The weekend shows will also include performances of Zoltan Kodaly's "Galanta Dances" and a solo of Felix Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto" by Franz Felkl.

Felkl, a 17-year-old JDHS senior, is the symphony's 2008 Youth Concerto Competition winner. Pickett said he shows a tremendous amount of maturity and exceptional musicianship for someone of his age.

"What a really talented kid," he said. "But when you hear him play, you won't think 'what a talented kid,' you're going to say 'what a wonderful performance.' And I think that's about the highest complement that a young artist can get."

Felkl said he is excited to be performing with the Juneau Symphony again and said this will be the third and most difficult solo he has performed on stage with the local organization.

"Even though Mendelssohn is not a Russian composer, he really brought in the Romantic Era," he said. "It was probably one of the first Romantic Era concertos ever made, so in that sense he was a revolutionary, too."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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