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Shostakovich Well-Served by Academy’s Young Musicians

The players show yet again that they are the jewels in the crown that is the Music Academy of the West

The Music Academy of the West Festival Orchestra, conducted by Larry Rachleff, played Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental Fifth Symphony on Saturday at The Granada, a triumph for musicians and composer.

This majestic work was completed by Shostakovich in 1937, at the height of Soviet premiere Josef Stalin’s purge of doctors, artists and everybody else he suspected of disagreeing with him. Shostakovich was under enormous pressure; his previous work, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, had infuriated Stalin and his regime with its dissonance and modernity.

Shostakovich is a prime example of a composer overcoming terrible circumstances to create a spiritual triumph. It can’t be easy being a genius at the best of times; working while living under the likes of Stalinist terror beggars the imagination.

This Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 is in four parts, labeled simply moderato, allegretto, largo and allegro non troppo. The initial movement is dark and brooding, almost dirge-like for the first part, until the strings enter with a more lyrical motif, followed by horns with a mocking, march-like cadence.

The second movement lightens up and introduces a dance-like theme, sounding not unlike Mahler.

All of the young orchestra players got a thorough workout in the third — largo — movement. The composer began with the violins, moved on to the flute, harp, oboe and clarinet, through to the end of the largo with a profound lament from the cellos.

The final movement kept building and building, through a modified march tempo into a progressively powerful passage of counterpoint, and on to the ringing climax with the full orchestra. Shostakovich in effect disdained the political machinations around him and wrote for the ages. He succeeded.

The Shostakovich occupied the second half of the concert; the first half was given over to Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite. The music was commissioned for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris ballet and introduced in 1912.

It’s about shepherds and shepherdesses in some pre-modern and bucolic paradise, their falling in love, various tribulations and ultimate triumph over adversity. This reviewer confesses to a certain impatience with French Impressionist composers (not the painters; they’re fine).

Ravel, like Debussy, combines a generous amount of whimsy, sweetness (syrupy?) and artsiness, to my ears. But the audience gave the piece, and the orchestra, a hearty round of applause when Daphnis and Chloe was over.

The audience also gave a standing ovation after the Shostakovich, and it was entirely deserved. How these young musicians land in Santa Barbara from all points of the compass, take master classes, collaborate on various smaller projects and then come together in a full orchestra like this is amazing.

Maestro Rachleff undoubtedly deserves plenty of credit for putting an orchestra of this caliber on the stage in such a short span of time. But the musicians themselves are the heart and soul of the academy. Every summer, they arrive like the monarch butterflies, work their magic artistry for the brief term and then take their leave.

Over the ensuing years, they return, singly or in small groups, as fully matured musicians, bringing their finely honed talents back to Santa Barbara. Of all the treasures in this community, the Music Academy is the crown jewel.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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