CORVALLIS — Give credit to a long-running fascination with Russia — and a compelling story of a composer’s artistic struggle against an unpredictable totalitarian regime — for inspiring this weekend’s program from the Corvallis-OSU Symphony Orchestra.
Sunday’s performance, “Russian Power,” is anchored by Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 10th Symphony, a piece the Soviet composer finished in 1953 — about the time that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died. It was a time when Shostakovitch, who ran afoul of Stalin and the Soviet Union’s artistic censors on a number of occasions, finally could move out of Stalin’s shadow.
But the shadow still looms large over this 50-minute-plus symphony, said Marlan Carlson, the conductor and musical director of the symphony. Carlson has wanted to play this symphony for years, but waited until he thought the orchestra was ready.
Carlson’s own Russian journeys have been happier, dating back to a tour of the Soviet Union back in 1962, when he was part of the Eastman Philharmonia. “Everywhere we went in the Soviet Union, it was just incredible,” he said. “They just wouldn’t let us off the stage. They would crowd around us like we were rock stars.”
Shostakovitch, born in 1906, was a rock star of sorts in the Soviet Union from his First Symphony onward, written when he was 19. But later in his career, his music was denounced at least twice by Soviet authorities, including Stalin himself, who is thought to be the driving force behind a withering public attack on the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”
At the time, criticism could mean more than just a bruised ego: It could mean exile or even execution. It happened to a number of Shostakovitch's friends and colleagues. And, even during those times when he was in the good graces of the authorities, the composer was prone to bouts of self-loathing about the compromises he felt he needed to make just to stay alive and working.
All of that is there in the 10th Symphony, and Carlson will offer his thoughts on the piece before the intermission at Sunday’s concert. (After the intermission, the orchestra will plunge right into the piece.)
“It’s a synthesis of his life,” Carlson said. “It’s a summary of his life.” And it’s packed with coded references, including a four-note motif that translates to DSCH, a reference to the composer’s initials.
It can be challenging, rigorous listening — from whispers of menace to frenzied bursts of something like joy. “This is not a big audience-pleaser as such,” Carlson said. “This will require some attentiveness on the part of the audience.”
And it will require considerable attentiveness from the orchestra.
“It’s a very demanding piece. It will challenge the orchestra in a way we haven’t been challenged before.”