I’ve attended quite a few symphony performances in the eight years I’ve lived in San Diego, and have always loved hearing the lectures that happen an hour or so before the performances. You could call me a nerd and you’d be onto something.
Nuvi Mehta, the so-called “Voice of the San Diego Symphony” (how could we at VOSD not love someone billed as such?) is not a bookish, mind-numbing history mumbler. He’s figured out a way to make the stories of politics and music and composers and instruments a liquid that he could absorb like a sponge. He spurts out these stories and threads in a fascinating, engaging way.
Then when you hear the symphony actually play the pieces, an hour or so later, you can see those threads woven in. You can imagine the composer hemming and hawing over the ending. You can follow the train of thought that makes a flute a main character, or a tuba a signal of something ominous.
But I’ve always thought it a shame that the only people who hear Mehta’s storytelling lectures are those who’ve already decided to buy a ticket and go to the symphony. What about the performances when I don’t recognize any of the pieces or the soloist and decide I don’t care to attend?
It matters what plays, what pieces, what works are being performed in San Diego. To catch a peek into the stories the symphony will be telling this weekend, I took a little point-and-shoot video camera to Symphony Hall yesterday to meet Mehta.
He offered a spur-of-the-moment nutshell version of the lecture he’ll give this weekend before the first concerts of the symphony’s 100th season. The symphony will perform a new piece by Marvin Hamlisch written for San Diego and will feature world-renowned flutist Sir James Galway playing a Mozart flute concerto and themes from the opera Carmen.
And the concert’s anchor is the fifth symphony that Dmitri Shostakovich composed in 1930s Soviet Russia. Mehta calls the Shostakovich symphony “one of the most important works of Western art in modern times.” In a bloody political climate and in the face of threats from Stalin, would Shostakovich write “some flag-waving, banal little piece? Or would he stick to his guns?” he asks.
Hear Mehta weave this tale:
Here’s a bit more I learned from Mehta yesterday. Part of the reason Shostakovich got away with the piece of music he composed, bleak and minor though it was, was that he put on a triumphant ending. But that ending, even with its big major chords and its power, speaks of an “ironic twinkle” in Shostakovich’s eye, Mehta said.
The composer wrote instructions for the ending to be played more slowly than the march might otherwise be played.
“That ending triumph would be at half tempo and go on — and on — and on, ” he said. “A little bit like those forced celebrations that the government used to put on, saying, ‘how great we are’ and ‘how perfect is our leader’ and ‘how perfect is our government.’”
Other interpretations of the piece, like one by famed conductor Leonard Bernstein, have sped the ending up to “breakneck speed.” But this weekend’s performance will be the slower interpretation, he said.
Here’s a performance of the last movement (with the faster ending) we dug up online so you can get a taste of what the piece sounds like:
Now you know some threads of the back story. If you go to the concerts this weekend, drop us a line and tell us what clues you heard of these storylines.