Worlds apart

If any two words ever belonged in the same sentence, they would be timeless and masterpiece. But maybe it's best not to toss them around with Philadelphia Orchestra audiences as they emerge, perhaps somewhat confused, from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15, performed last week and being repeated next month.

The symphony is full of harmonies, melodies and gestures familiar from other Shostakovich works. But the compass behind the piece - that which guides the order of events and the overall purpose of expression - is seriously elusive. The work is so substantial as to rate masterpiece status. Yet it leaves a huge gulf between expression and, in our time and place, comprehension. It seems like the soundtrack to a movie whose story we don't know.

In art, such gaps aren't so unusual. Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony loses meaning in our time because it was written for a culture that knew Lord Byron's dramatic poem of the same name the way we know Harry Potter. Some call that an assumption of mutual understanding. And the sense of complicity that shared culture creates in audiences can be thrilling.

Shostakovich, however, kept his "movies" secret. Long harassed by Soviet rulers from Stalin on, he had learned to exploit music's most slippery qualities. He composed in a code of sorts, reflecting the experience of living under totalitarianism with a sense of audience complicity far more crucial than Tchaikovsky's, but never with surface features specific enough to land him on a train to Siberia.

The symphony, written only 33 years ago, but in a very different Russia, now seems strange and mercurial - with manic quotes from Rossini's William Tell Overture and dissonant woodwind tone clusters that reappear unchanged and as stone-faced as the Sphinx. With so much implied and so little on the page, can the Symphony No. 15 ever be timeless? Can any mutual understanding be recaptured? Or may it be replaced by something equally meaningful?

Cases of more contemporary artistic reactions to events provide clues. Consider the pre-1996 AIDS epidemic, which had strong reverberations in most artistic communities, from John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, an angry protest against perceived inaction by the government and medical community, to the song cycle Orpheus and Euridice by Ricky Ian Gordon, one of several works prompted by the AIDS-related deaths of loved ones.

Corigliano's piece gained a lot of its power from being big, loud and confrontational - with all the effects that a symphony orchestra can muster - on a subject that, at the work's 1990 premiere, was then somewhat taboo.

Now, the question is whether there's intrinsic musical value in Corigliano's language of protest. Will audiences eventually be as puzzled by his mad orchestral tarantella depicting AIDS dementia as we are by Shostakovich's William Tell quotes?

That wasn't an issue a few seasons back with Charles Dutoit's less shrill, less subtext-specific Corigliano performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The wizardry behind the symphony's collages of sound - heard in Dutoit's French accent - was compelling in and of itself. In the '90s, a bad performance could succeed through audience complicity. With that fading, the symphony's future success may depend more on good performances.

I don't see that happening to Gordon's song cycle, even though it has fewer levels than Corigliano's symphony. Written for soprano, clarinet and piano, it was staged operatically this fall by Lincoln Center, featuring soprano Elizabeth Futral and clarinetist Todd Palmer. And though the music touches all the emotional high points of the Orpheus legend - Euridice's death and the failed rescue from the underworld - it's like a series of stepping-stones without the connective narrative of a story we all know, as some critics have noted. The piece consists of well-placed pools of airy, though heated, ecstatic/tragic music.

Reactions at Lincoln Center were intensely emotional (word has it that the performers grieved at the end of its run), but not necessarily because many of us saw the same people die in the New York music scene. The music is attached to a profound myth that looms larger as modern medicine raises the possibility of bringing back the dead, whether the Euridice is Terri Schiavo or Reese Witherspoon in the recent film Just Like Heaven. Gordon succeeds because the music is attached to a myth that shows no signs of fading. Anyone perceiving gaps in the narrative need only Google "Orpheus and Euridice."

Where does that put Shostakovich's 15th? The music is nearly as unspecific as Gordon's, but that's because it touches so many disparate bases. Shostakovich quotes Wagner's Die Walküre, from a section in which the hero Siegmund is invited by the warrior maiden Brünnhilde to his heavenly reward in Valhalla. He defies cosmic order by refusing to leave his pregnant wife.

But there's no refusal from Shostakovich. There's not even fear, and what follows is the most original music of all, an extended percussion passage that seems to lead, unsentimentally, to death.

Audiences have little problem coping with Mahler and Mozart as they scream at the precipice of mortality - the former in his Symphony No. 10, the latter in his Requiem. But Western civilization isn't so programmed to deal with somebody embracing death without hesitation or apprehension.

Tired, ill, Shostakovich had been so beaten up for the heinous crime of being one of the century's great symphonists, and had been on the verge of suicide so often, that you can't imagine him clinging to his earthly existence. What may always keep his 15th on the fringes isn't the gaps left by its implications. Its missing puzzle pieces are ones most of us may never want to find.
- David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 Dec 2005