In 2004, the BBC reported that a collection of thousands of tape recordings and manuscripts by the famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was in search of a home.
The collection belonged to Estonian conductor Roman Matsov (who died in 2001), a close friend of Shostakovich. At the composer’s request, Matsov always performed and recorded his works in Tallinn (Estonia’s capital) within days of their Leningrad/Moscow premieres. Matsov then smuggled each tape home as a way to keep the music in circulation, in case it was banned by the Soviets.
That connection wasn’t lost on Matsov student Olari Elts, who will conduct two Shostakovich pieces with the Seattle Symphony next week.
Speaking from his home in Tallinn last week, Elts said his lessons with Matsov gave him “some hints from almost a direct line from Shostakovich.” The fact that Elts, 42, was also a member of Estonia’s last generation to come of age during Soviet rule makes him feels he’s someone “who can really say what Shostakovich maybe meant.”
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During the Soviet era, he notes, theaters and concerts halls were packed. “Everyone was looking for something between the lines” — a practice that still goes on in interpreting Shostakovich’s work.
As Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” hit the streets of Tallinn, leading up to the country’s “re-independence” in 1991 (it first gained independence between the two world wars), music, ironically, took a back seat for Elts. “Everywhere else was so much more interesting than in the theater or the arts.”
Since then, as principal guest conductor for both the Estonian National Symphony and Helsinki Philharmonic and as a conductor-for-hire around the globe, Elts’ focus is firmly back on the music.
Next week’s program includes Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and his Piano Concerto No. 2. The soloist on the latter is Alexander Melnikov, who recently recorded both the composer’s piano concertos, packaged with his Violin Sonata (superbly performed with his frequent concert partner, Isabelle Faust).
Rounding out the bill are John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” and Adams’ orchestral transcription of Liszt’s piano piece, “The Black Gondola.”
For Elts, the lush shadows of “The Black Gondola” are a perfect way to set the mood for Symphony No. 9. Shostakovich may have described his ninth symphony as “a merry piece.” (“Musicians will love to play it,” he quipped, “and critics will delight in damning it.”) But in its historical context, Elts explains, it was an almost suicidal thing for him to have written.
Just over 20 minutes long, it’s more succinct than any other Shostakovich symphony, boasting wily, sonorous, captivating touches that take manic or thorny turns without ever veering into bombast — and that was the problem. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, in 1945, was expecting a triumphal work to follow the composer’s 7th and 8th symphonies, both of them hour-plus epics addressing Second World War agonies. Stalin also assumed the piece would be similar in scale and approach to Beethoven’s 9th.
“When my Ninth was performed,” Shostakovich later noted, “he was deeply offended, because there was no chorus, no soloists. … It was just music, which Stalin didn’t understand very well.”
Banned in 1948, it was the last symphony he wrote during Stalin’s lifetime.
For all its antic energy, the 9th is a more serious work, Elts feels, than it’s sometimes taken to be. He points particularly to the bassoon solo in the fourth movement which, to his mind, suggests someone waking on a battlefield to find he’s the only one who survived.
The second piano concerto, while just as tightly constructed as the 9th, is an entirely different animal, Elts believes. Written for Shostakovich’s son, then a 19-year-old music student, it’s frisky in its outer two movements, lyrical in its central slow movement, and altogether a delight.
Throw in the pieces by Adams (“one of the best orchestrators in the 20th century,” Elts enthuses), and this should be quite a concert.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com