Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Problem of Shostakovich

I decided recently I was going to see what all the fuss was about, and immerse myself in the works of Dmitri Shostakovich.

If you don't already know by now but Shostakovich would have been 100 this year. His music has been everywhere, and most major orchestras, opera companies, radio stations and record companies have done something to commemorate this.

There is a strange quality to all of this. For years, the classical music industry, ever valorizing the glorious past, has taken to commemorating every kind of birth or death anniversary of our pantheon of great composers, usually singling out one in particular for special treatment, usually in the form of a boxed set of recordings with a woodcut or bronze of the composer's visage.

Most of us realise this is kind of absurd - is the 150th anniversary of Schumann's death less important than Shostakovich's 100th birthday, given their both quite dead? Nonetheless, as a way of focussing the mind, and the pocketbook, it's probably not a bad strategy, and it certainly makes the planning of orchestra seasons and recording sessions easier.


So, what about Shostakovich? I listened to his symphonies, his string quartets, his jazz suites, is piano concertos and some of his music for solo piano (all courtesy of the Naxos Music Library), so I feel I got a good sense of the man and his work. I had heard much of this before, I'd just never really paid attention.

Truth be told, I don't know what to make of him. I enjoyed the 15th symphony and 1st piano concerto, and I found the jazz suites a delightful surprise. The string quartets seem, to my ear, to be as close to Beethoven's accomplishment as anything can or will be - they are works of intense power.

Here's the problem. I cannot separate Shostakovich from his political environment. Indeed, I'm not sure anyone can.

When I listen to the 7th symphony, and find it wanting, my old musicology teacher whispers "Stalin" into my mind's ear and it acts as a balm for the aesthetic aches Shostakovich arouses in me.

Do we grant Shostakovich his greatness because of Stalin or despite him? It's hard to say, but the incessant repetition of his works, coupled with constant reminders of STALIN, over the past year has dulled my ability to think clearly about him. Indeed, some very skillful and prominent classical music bloggers have felt the same way about this, although they have more of a handle on the aesthetic issues than I do.

That I seemed to enjoy what would be considered some of his lighter works strikes me as telling - is this the real Shostakovich, the one unencumbered by Stalinism. Was his seriousness unnatural?

I just don't know what to think of him now. So that's where I will have to leave it until later. The COC performs Lady Macbeth in a few months, and I'll update my thoughts then.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Shostakovich at 100

Never one to be on top of a trend, I have largely ignored, missed, or marked with disinterest the celebrations surrounding the commemoration of what would have been Dmitri Shostakovich's 100th birthday.

Why? No particular reason.

Classical music is a big pond, and I've never really bonded with him. So to rectify that, I've been listening to all of his symphonies via my good pals at the Naxos Music Library. I listened to 1-6 yesterday, and I'm hoping to polish them off by tonight.

Coincidentally, CBC happens to be putting on a little Shostakovich celebration of their own this month, and have a site up. Check it out.

However, Leningrad awaits. More thoughts to come!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sound Familiar?

Happy Hallowmas!

Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, has a half-hearted lament for the demise of Tower Records.

Anyone here in Toronto remember Tower Records, which, along with Sam's and HMV, made Toronto one of the best places in the world to buy classical music? Toronto's Tower Records disappeared without fanfare a number of years ago, and although Sam's old flagship store is still around, it appears that HMV won the giant record store wars here in Toronto.

They celebrated this fact a number of years ago by cancelling their annual Boxing Day buy three get one free CD sale. They handed out coupons instead. But that's business.

We're still doing pretty well here in Toronto when it comes to purchasing classical music. Not so much in Calgary. Although there's a great independent classical CD store in Calgary, I'm sure there are many who remember that 15 years ago, Canada's country music mecca managed to support two of them, one of which had more than one location!

Then A&B Sound came along. Their downtown flagship store had the largest classical music section around, and they fairly quickly killed those independent stores. Then, as per their calculus of profitability, once they'd killed off their barely profitable competitors, they gutted their classical CD department.

Now it's A&B Sound that's suffering, the flagship store long gone, their stores in Calgary a pale shadow of their glory days, their business sucked away by the like of Future Shop and Best Buy. Dog eats dog.

Should we be worried about this trend? For many years, I gave the party line about the decline of classical music, etc. Truth be told, this is a big pile of a book written by Harry Frankfurt. Now, more than ever, classical music, in addition to all the other wonderful fruits of the great minds of humanity, be they books, art, cinema, or scientific results, are available to people in more ways than I could have dreamed when my eyes were opened to the vastness of the intellectual world in my teens.

For the cost of one CD a month, you have access to a lifetime of music on the Naxos Music Library. The Canadian Opera Company has affordable rush seating - I couldn't believe how many children there were at the opera, kids who took the subway downtown with a bunch of their friends to see the opera.

So then why does the myth of the demise of classical music persist? It keeps fundraisers on their toes - it's always easier to get money for a desperate cause than an organization filled to the brim with cash.

This myth has also served the recording industry well, pitting listeners against each other, and creating a sense of solidarity amongst the listeners of a particular genre who believe that by buying these records they're somehow keeping the sacred flame alive.

It's sad that Tower Records went out of business here in Toronto and New York, but perhaps all this means is that someone who cares about classical music will decide to open a CD store that pays the bills so that the rest of us can buy an Hans Werner Henze CD on a whim.

Those kinds of stores always seem to get by, and in doing so, say more about the kind of capitalism we should be encouraging, despite their relative inefficiency at creating capital when compared to, for example, Tower Records.