Composers have used the symphony as a means of making a statement since Haydn perfected the form in the 1700s.
But few composers have used the symphonic form to embody as diverse an array of meanings and emotions — from the blatant to the enigmatic, the sourly comic to the achingly tragic — as the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
One of Shostakovich's more pivotal works, the Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47, was the subject of the Signature Symphony's concert Saturday at the VanTrease PACE.
It was part of the orchestra's "Connecting the Dots — Bringing the Score to Life" concerts, in which music director Andrés Franco shared insights into the composer's life and creative process, illustrated with passages from the work under examination played by the orchestra. The presentation was followed by a full performance of the complete symphony.
As Franco stated, Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony at a particularly fraught moment in the composer's life. His opera, "Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District," had been playing to great acclaim and packed houses for two years.
Then Josef Stalin — whose understanding of art, like most dictators, was limited to portraits of himself — took in a performance, and was not amused. And Shostakovich found himself in a most perilous place, or as a story in the Soviet press concluded, "Things could end very badly for the composer" of such music.
Shostakovich's answer was the Symphony No. 5, which he subtitled, "A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism." It became one of Shostakovich's most popular works, as it is filled with melodies and brassy marches and fanfares that might speak to the commonest of listener.
But, Franco pointed out, the symphony is equally rich in subtleties that serve as Shostakovich's veiled defiance in the face of "just criticism."
This was something the Signature Symphony's performance brought very much to the fore Saturday night. Under Franco's direction, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 could be heard as a statement of the power of the individual voice in the face of tyranny.
For example, the first movement is rich with passages that range from the serene to the troubled, like the thoughts that might skitter through a person's mind in dealing with daily life. These themes build and evolve until an almost brutal march section begins, that sounds as if it is trying to stomp out any and all individuality and personality. But for all the brassy bombast, the march doesn't last, and the music fades away into gentle, ruminative tones.
The second movement, a scherzo that plays wicked games waltz rhythms, was striking in how the orchestra's playing again emphasized the individual voice — sharp delineations between the various section of the orchestra added to energy, even mania, of the piece.
The third movement, built upon elements of Russian Orthodox liturgical movement, was described by Franco as "a requiem without words," out of which arose poignant, piercing solo songs from principal oboe Lisa Wagner, principal clarinet Christy Andrews and principal flute Dana Higbee (perhaps representing the three of Shostakovich's family who had died in Stalin's purges), as Franco deftly controlled the delicate dynamics.
Little is delicate about the fourth movement, which opens with a wallop of a march, but this time it is less martial in tone.
The sense one took away from the orchestra's performance is that of someone putting on the bravest of faces for the public to see, but behind that mask remains the anger at having to put such a façade in place, and the bitter determination not to allow it to slip out of place — perhaps the point of those 252 rapid iterations of the single note A at the movement's high point.
It made for a gripping performance of this work, of music as raw and raucous as it was delicate and tuneful.
James D. Watts Jr.