Sunday, April 19, 2015

My Experience of the Siege of Leningrad

Scott has a number of rules by which he lives: the couple I usually remember, but tend to blur in my mind, are "Never trust a man in a beret" and "Never buy a green suit." I'm pretty sure I've done both, if "suit" can include a dress and jacket ensemble. This evening, I do believe, a new rule has been added--at least if I have anything to say about it: "Never go to a Shostokovich symphony." Most assuredly, never go to hear his bullet, the Leningrad Symphony, is engraved upon both of our hearts. I swear the siege itself could not have felt so long. And I'm sure a diet of rats could not have felt so repetitive as that second movement.

It is possible that there is a nice 35 or even 45 minutes of music in the piece but it goes on, unfortunately, for close to 80 minutes. Comrade Dmitri manages to make it that long by taking one nice little phrase and repeating it for half an hour. I wish to hell I were exaggerating. That second movement had me thinking wistfully of Dorothy Parker's review of some play or other in which she shot herself. Had I a gun with me this evening, I likely would have done the same during that second movement. Midway through the fourth, however, I was feeling more public-spirited and likely would have shot key members of the symphony. I think they might have thanked me; certainly the audience would have. Scott noted that the man sitting next to the second violinist had a huge grin on his face when he turned the final page of the score. I didn't notice him but I did note when the person next to the first violinist turned that page. Alas, it turns out that the final fifteen minutes are another single phrase, played over and over again. I have guns on the brain (perhaps because the guest conductor reminded Scott of Chekhov--who doesn't these days, one might ask); I assume that the score actually has the couple of bars of music and then a note to the musician to repeat until she wishes to shoot herself and then continue for another eternity. The crowd, needless to say, went wild when it was over: I assume from a sense of relief and libertion.

 It's too bad that the Shostikovich was so very tiresome as the first piece, Alfred Schnittke's Violn Concerto No. 4, was quite fine, with unexpected turns. At times it seemed like walking through a music festival hearing snatches of a bunch of different performances. That may not sound very coherent, I suppose, and I really have no idea how one movement may have related to the next (though there were a few recurring themes) but I found myself thinking that I wanted the piece to continue and was repeatedly happy when it did. "What's it going to do *now*?" I'd ask myself. The soloist, Alexander Velinzon, seemed to know his way around a violin too. Honestly, we'd be feeling a lot happier about the Seattle Symphony had we left at intermission.


  1. "Most assuredly, never go to hear his bullet, the Leningrad Symphony, is engraved upon both of our hearts." ???

    "his bullet"? Is that because of all the talk of guns? Or is "bullet" a secret symphony-goer code word for "BS"?

    I could always go down to my neighbor who plays violin for the symphony (the guy with the ZZ Top look) and ask him how relieved he feels when it's over. Come to think of it, I haven't seen him for a while -- perhaps he scheduled a well-planned vacation.

  2. No, he was definitely there. Scott noticed he exempted himself from banging on his violin with his bow during the Schnittke. "Bullet" is a term I picked up many years ago from a Frank Zappa album (here's a YouTube link:; it's a band's big hit that everyone knows. Possibly I misapplied it to Shostokovich.

    1. No, "Leningrad" is definitely Shostakovich's bullet.

    2. Ah. You mean like, "No. 1 with a bullet"? Even I've heard that phrase. Thank you. I just wasn't parsing that sentence very easily. Too bad my ZZ Top neighbor had to endure it, he seems like a nice guy overall.

      And he doesn't wear a beret.

    3. I ran across my violinist neighbor on my walk home from the bus today, and asked him what he thought of Shostakovich. He gave a little groan. "People either love him or hate him," he said, "so at least he succeeds in eliciting strong emotions." I did tell him how much my friends enjoyed the pre-Leningrad piece, and that even Leningrad made the crowd "go wild" at the end. He admitted he never knew if that meant they loved it or were just incredibly glad it was over. Ha.

  3. Sounds like your appreciation of the Leningrad is akin to mine of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen. It was an excruciating hour last fall at the Seattle Symphony, atonal, non-melodic, irrythmic, blech. I realize and appreciate that he was putting into his music the tragedy of the destruction of Germany in WWII. I do remember liking the Shostakovich #5 at some time in my life, but I know nothing of any of his other works. I will avoid the Leningrad.

  4. Oddly, last night we heard the Emerson String Quartet do Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 7. It was less than fifteen minutes, I think, and Scott thought it was fabulous. It's my nature to hold a grudge a bit longer, I guess, but I'm willing to all that the shorter piece was fine. What I really enjoyed was the Lowell Liebermann composition though his liner notes I find utterly baffling.