The 2018-19 concert season opened in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the hometown Mozarteum Orchestra and guest conductor John Storgårds. They performed music from the mid-1950s by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Schostakowitsch, although the pieces could not have been more different: Bernstein’s charming Serenade After Plato’s Symposium and Schostakowitsch’s brutal Eleventh Symphony.
The Bernstein piece, scored for violin solo (tonight, Baiba Skride), strings, and percussion, was suitably eclectic in style, with movements representing figures at Plato’s dinner party. I suppose the nature of each movement was supposed to represent the respective character, but whether Bernstein succeeded in this or not (and some evidence suggests he wrote the music first and only later added the cultural references to the written description) the music did work in an odd way. Written simultaneous with Candide, some elements of that opera make an appearance in the score here, and Stravinsky also has an influence. I had not known this piece before, and had feared it might be over-thunk like so many of Bernstein’s works, but maybe because he was not really trying to set a program (despite his official description) he kept this more contained. The orchestra got it. Skride got it. The combination produced delightful interplay, well balanced and full of humor.
After the break, Storgårds let loose with Schostakowitsch’s approximate portrayal of the events in Russia of 1905 – a year which opened with peaceful protesters coming to the Imperial Palace to plead with the Czar (whom they actually revered), only to have the Czar send his soldiers shooting into the crowd leaving thousands dead, triggering revolutionary events that foretold the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917. In memorializing the victims and raising the alarm, Schostakowitsch’s subtext concerned the post-1917 Soviet regime under which Russia continued to suffer (the symphony was officially written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution).
Lines in one section of the orchestra came into direct conflict with lines played by other instruments, both dissonant and cumulative (in this way it actually did resemble the Bernstein work too). Storgårds’ interpretation was raw – with the comfort level of ripping scabs off wounds unable to heal, with the wailing of harsh crescendi interjecting. Gone were the soaring chorales – either of the peasants’ pleas or the memorial hymns – replaced instead by harsh reality. This was not the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most beautiful, but that was exactly Storgårds’ point. This was the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most dramatic. I still think it’s possible to do both (my clear favorite reference recording of the work is with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra – a recording that made this possibly my favorite of Schostakowitsch’s output), but tonight’s interpretation was highly convincing on its own merits. Special kudos to the English hornist and percussion section.