In my opinion, all music and art is about one of two things: love, or losing love. I read East of Eden and thought it was basically a self-help book on how to survive a breakup (albeit a VERY well written one). I went to the Academy Festival Orchestra concert alone last night, feeling generally pretty sorry for myself over recently fizzled things, and sitting wedged between pairs of strangers whose side-by-side embraces made me a bit nauseous (although it may have also been a touch of acrophobia).
Little did I know, the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was the perfect piece of music to listen to in my state of mind. Hidden beneath the cinematic orchestrations, and haunting tremelo lies a message from the composer himself. A message about longing and the loss of love that was so powerful, I was in tears by the end of the third movement.
The story is that Shostakovich had an affair with Elena Konstantinovskya, but she refused his offer of marriage, and ended up marrying Soviet filmmaker Roman Carmen. Scattered throughout his symphony you can hear numerous references to Bizet’s Carmen. One of the most obvious happens in the second theme of the first movement, which you can listen to here (a good place to start might be around 14:01). After that, you can hear the “Amour, Amour” theme in the Habanera from Carmen, starting from around :41.
The Symphony was made even more amazing by the fact that the orchestra is composed entirely of college-age students (or “fellows” as they are called), led by the wonderful Leonard Slatkin. In addition, this was the first performance by the Festival Orchestra in which a fellow acted as concertmaster. In the past, they’ve had one of the violin faculty members serve as concertmaster. Simon Michal, who was last night’s concertmaster, played every single one of the violin solos with absolute perfection. The brass were also impressive, and sitting directly behind the french horn faculty was particularly satisfying.
There were times when the piece felt suspenseful – like watching a Hitchcock film. I would feel my hair standing on end as I was sure the entire orchestra would become derailed due to the extremely fast tempo. I held my breath until they all came together in a soaring, triumphant melody. It’s the sort of melody that makes you want to stand and cheer. Actually, I’ve been told that on some occasions, the New World Symphony WILL cheer (listen from 42:27, the cheering would take place around 42:54).
By the time the symphony was over, I realized that I wasn’t really sitting there alone. I was no more alone than one of the violinists. I (along with everyone else in the concert hall) am just part of the orchestra – playing my part the best I can. Sometimes soaring triumphantly, but mostly hung up on unrequited love.