The guest conductor was Polish-born Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The distinguished conductor and composer is 90 years old, and is the world's oldest living musician still leading major orchestras. When he came on stage, he appeared quite frail, and I feared that he would not make it to the podium. However, once he began to direct the orchestra, there was no lack of vigor and enthusiasm.
The principal work on the program was one of my favorite symphonies... the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. (This is the same work that Skrowaczewski conducted when he made his American debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958.)
The symphony was written in 1937 when Shostakovich had fallen out of favor with the Communist Party because of his avant garde music. The infamous Purges of the Stalinist regime had begun, and the composer found himself in a perilous position. With the more traditional Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich regained the favor of the Party. The thunderous final movement was hailed by the Soviet government as an affirmation of the optimism of Stalinist Russia. In fact, many music commentators believe that Shostakovich's music remained slyly defiant. The sorrowful third movement is thought to be a lament for a former patron who had perished in the Purges. Even the triumphant finale has been interpreted by some as tongue-in-cheek sarcasm... "Look how happy we are under Stalin!"
Whatever the composer's intentions might have been, there is no argument that the Fifth Symphony is a masterpiece, and it remains today one of Shostakovich's most frequently performed works. The music is a roller coaster ride of emotions. The performance last night was brilliant, and the conductor received a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.
I wish that I could share with you last night's electrifying performance, but here is a video from YouTube of the final movement performed by another renowned orchestra, the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Fourth Movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony