Music » Music Features

Ward Stare leads RPO in Mahler, Shostakovich symphonies

Bitter, sweet symphonies


RPO Music Director Ward Stare says first-time listeners to Mahler's Seventh Symphony should "embrace the weirdness." - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • RPO Music Director Ward Stare says first-time listeners to Mahler's Seventh Symphony should "embrace the weirdness."
Ward Stare returns to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra next week, and the music director has a couple of ambitious programs planned. On February 28 and March 2, he’ll essay Gustav Mahler’s enormous Symphony No. 7 for the first time; and on March 7 and 9, he’ll highlight another 20th-century masterpiece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. These rewarding compositions demand a lot from the musicians and the audience, but the composers who wrote them mean a lot to Stare.

With the upcoming performance of Symphony No. 7, Stare is continuing his annual exploration of Mahler’s symphonies with the RPO. It began in 2017 with Symphony No. 5, and continued last year with Symphony No. 4. Those are among Mahler’s most popular works, but his Seventh Symphony something else entirely.

The orchestra is lavish, even for Mahler: the “extras” include a tenor horn (something like a flügelhorn), a guitar, a mandolin, and several cowbells (a favorite percussion sound of the composer). Symphony No. 7 is hardly an RPO staple: The orchestra performed it in the 1950’s under Erich Leinsdorf, and under David Zinman in 1982. However, 37 years later, it may have been worth the wait.

“To me, this is the most Mahlerian of Mahler’s symphonies – dark, moody, weird,” says Stare. “In it you get all the quirks of his superstitious personality.” Symphony No. 7 was written in 1904 and 1905. By the time it was first performed in 1908, Mahler’s life was upended: He had resigned as director of the Vienna Opera, one of his young daughters had died, and he was ill with an undiagnosed heart disease. Mahler died in 1911, at the age of 50.

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony opens with one of the composer’s specialty, a long funeral march, and closes with a high-energy finale – music so frenetic and episodic that some listeners find it simply exhausting. In between is the heart of the matter: three movements that Stare describes as “nocturnes” – in fact, two of them are titled “Nachtmusik,” “night music,” or “serenade.” The second movement is said to be inspired by Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.” The third is an unsettling waltz-scherzo; Stare points out that Mahler labels it “Schattenhaft,” or “shadowy.” The fourth is a sentimental serenade, complete with the above-mentioned mandolin and guitar come in.

“The Seventh, particularly the finale, can sound very disjointed,” Stare admits. “The challenge for the conductor is to thread the needle, to make all these nightmarish, nocturnal sounds linear and logical.” Stare also says the symphony is “an amazing world of sound. Studying it is a never-ending journey. Mahler maintains this emotional ambiguity throughout the entire piece – even in the last note.”

“When I was trying to decide which Mahler to do this season, I kept coming back to the Seventh,” Stare says of the 70-minute symphony and only work on the program. He’s never conducted it; he adds that most of the RPO musicians have never performed it, either, and they’re just as excited about rehearsing and performing it as he is. “It’s an unusual work,” he says, “but it is a lot of fun for the players. Mahler leaves no stone unturned in his orchestration. The more you listen, the more you hear.”

Mahler once stated that “the symphony should embrace the world.” His symphonies certainly do, none more than this one. Stare’s advice to anyone encountering to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for the first time: “It’s a weird symphony. Embrace the weirdness.”

One could forgive Stare and the RPO for taking it easy after performing Mahler’s huge, demanding work, but they’re back next week on March 7 and 9 with another huge, demanding work: Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, coupled very appropriately with Sibelius' Violin Concerto, played by Augustin Hadelich – Musical America’s 2018 Instrumentalist of the Year.

Shostakovich was the Soviet Union’s most brilliant young composer until the late 1930’s, when Joseph Stalin took a dislike to his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Suddenly, the brilliant young composer feared for his life. He rehabilitated himself with his Fifth Symphony, still his most famous work, but was attacked again as an unpatriotic “formalist” by Stalin after World War II.

Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony appeared in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, when the composer could breathe a bit easier. Shostakovich claimed he wrote it immediately after Stalin’s death, but other evidence suggests it was sketched out well before that. Unlike Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony was an immediate hit, in the Soviet Union and everywhere else.

Symphony No. 10 also embraces the world, but Shostakovich’s world is a dark, frightening one, with occasional glimpses of hope. This composer was very much influenced by Mahler, and it shows: an intense, long first movement; two shorter movements – one is violent and mechanistic, while the other is mild but emotionally ambiguous; and a raucous, ebullient finale.

Stare points out that in this work, as in many others, Shostakovich uses a four-note motive whose pitches correspond to the German abbreviation of his name, D-S-C-H – or in English, D-E flat-C-B natural. “In the first movement,” Stare says, “this motive is repeated over and over again, with greater urgency and determination. It is as if Shostakovich is asserting his identity and validity, saying again and again, ‘I am a man.’”

The “D-S-C-H” motive recurs in the other movements, triumphantly so in the symphony’s finale. The brief second movement may or may not be a portrait of Stalin, Shostakovich’s long-time tormentor. “It’s definitely not a joy ride,” Stare says. “This is music by a man in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, music of dark hallways and living in an atmosphere in which you can be declared a ‘non-person’ at any time.”

The symphonies of Shostakovich haven’t turned up often in RPO performance history. But if you’re a fan of this 20th-century Russian master, you have an ally in Stare. He has done Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the deceptively lighter Ninth Symphony previously with the RPO; for the 2019-20 season, he will lead the orchestra in the composer's Symphony No. 11, nicknamed "The Year 1905." “I adore every single one of Shostakovich’s symphonies,” he says. He also recommends listening to the composer's 15 string quartets.

“Shostakovich’s music can be hard to read,” says Stare. “This is a man who, to be honest, wrote a lot of schlocky music like film scores, simply in order to survive. But in works like the Tenth Symphony, or the Fifth Quartet from about the same time, he was able to stand up for himself and create astonishing art.”

Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will perform "Mahler 7" Thursday, February 28, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 2, 8 p.m. Performances of"Shostakovich 10" take place Thursday, March 7, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 9, 8 p.m. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs Street. $24-$106.