Writing in 1888, in the lead-up years of the Russian Revolution, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov looked outward, setting to music the heat of Sheherazade's Arabian nights. In the Soviet Union of 1953, Dmitri Shostakovich looked inward, recording in his Tenth Symphony his response to the horrors of Joseph Stalin, who had recently died.
Both works present melodies of excruciating beauty. Rimsky-Korsakov's enchant; Shostakovich's terrify. The music is presented Thursday when renowned conductor Valery Gergiev leads the Kirov National Orchestra at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle Theater.
"It's a very good thing that we are performing such hugely contrasting works," said the 52-year-old Gergiev by phone recently from New York City.
Rimsky-Korsakov's work has long floated free of time and place. The reception of Shostakovich's music, however, remains woven within the Soviet experience. Gergiev is not about to forget history, but he would like listeners to begin to confront Shostakovich on the basis of the music alone.
"There has been a lot of writing about Shostakovich and his struggle with Stalin and his earlier protest against the Nazi machine. But my proposition is to put first the music. Just understanding the music's beauty, strength, joy, and drama is enough. Then after hearing all that, if you want, you can go and read about Stalin. I'm not proposing we forget about the past, but that we stop thinking that it should be the first thing that comes to our mind when listening to Shostakovich," he said.
Lionized in the West for his resistance to Soviet dogma, at home Shostakovich danced on the razor's edge. His 1934 opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, achieved immediate acclaim both at home and abroad. Two years later, however, the Soviet newspaper Pravda proclaimed the opera "chaos instead of music." The work was withdrawn and Shostakovich forced to apologize.
Life for a Soviet dissident often brought banishment to Siberia or worse. Shostakovich escaped such punishment because of his great international fame, but even so, he had to be careful.
Careful, but not silent. Shostakovich coded his music with social meanings that only insiders could have gleaned. Even today, people are not sure exactly what Shostakovich really meant. Probably we never will.
We do know, at the very least, that Stalin is depicted in Symphony No. 10. The music is often brutal, but ultimately uplifting, as if something better is to come.
Expect the audience to explode in cheers Thursday night at the symphony's grand conclusion. Such a response would be hard to suppress, but is that the proper attitude for this emotionally tangled music? Gergiev says yes.
"For Shostakovich the Tenth Symphony stands alone. It is beautiful and powerful. The first two movements are a very dark center of gravity. But there is no question about the ending. He was capable of describing great beauty and energy. The cloud of the earlier times is gone."
Expect extremes of beauty and violence from Gergiev. He is classical music's biggest risk-taker, one who courts musical train wrecks because he believes that's the path towards realizing musical vision.
"What I want to achieve in the hall for musicians and audience is to make them believe that what happens in front of them happens in the here and now. Music doesn't need to be very very precise and a photocopy of what could have happened yesterday and the day before. The music needs to happen now. This is our responsibility.
"Of course, this kind of uncertainty will make some people feel uncomfortable. But this is what you have to do in music. You have to take risks and hopefully you win. That's the job, to grow and explore."
"A conductor has to give something during the concert, the special things that musicians hope for but don't know when or where they might happen. These things can't be rehearsed. Ninety-five percent of what you want to do can't be explained beforehand. You could take 10 rehearsals and still not get that," he said.
Over the past two decades, Shostakovich has become one of the most performed of all composers for two reasons. First, the music is technically masterful. Second, the composer always spoke from deep within his soul.
These things are heard by anyone willing to listen, whether American or Japanese, Finnish or Brazilian, said Gergiev. And with the passing of time, Gergiev predicts that even the Russians will substitute Shostakovich's specific programs for more universal ones.
"In about 20 years time you will see that the ground will be even for both Americans and Russians. The young Russian didn't go through these events that Shostakovich describes. Those were the experiences of my father. Young Russians want music that has energy and beauty and drama. They want intensity. That's where the public everywhere comes together over Shostakovich," he said.
Born in Moscow in 1953, Gergiev's talent showed early. While still a student at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire, he won top prize in the Berlin-based Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition. He began conducting at the Kirov-Mariinsky Theatre in 1977 and assumed the company's directorship in 1988, a position he still holds. Awards include People's Artist of Russia, France's Order of Arts and Letters, and many others.
Gergiev is a frequent guest at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he served as principal guest conductor from 1997-2002. In 2007 he takes up as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Conductor Valery Gergiev leads the Kirov National Orchestra in music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle Theater. Tickets range from $22 to $45. Information: 419-246-8000 or 800-348-1253.
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