Q: Let’s talk a bit about your Carnegie Hall concert in October. This will be the first time the orchestra has played there in a decade! Did you do a lot of agonizing about what you should program?
PO: This is a hugely important concert for the orchestra and for me, and everyone has been extremely thoughtful about the program. Ute Lemper will join us for Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, and our big orchestral piece will be a Shostakovich symphony. There was some interest in doing his Tenth, but we opted to perform his Eleventh instead and I’m very excited about this decision. It’s a very powerful work that has a huge impact on the audience.
Q: Tell us a bit about this piece, which has a reputation for being a harrowing emotional ride…
PO: Shostakovich wrote his Eleventh Symphony after the Hungarian uprising and massacre in 1956, and clearly that event was on his mind. The works bears the subtitle “The Year 1905”, which is the year that the Russian Tsar’s troops shot at a large gathering of unarmed peasants who were appealing to him for help.
It’s a phenomenal depiction of much more than just the event that inspired it. Shostakovich captures the human action, the anger, the tragedy, and above all, the defiance. I feel that this piece reflects human strength in the face of adversity.
PO: Actually, there is a large Russian population in Toronto and there are a lot of Russian musicians in the orchestra. Shostakovich has been an important voice in the orchestra for decades.
For me personally, the whole history between Armenia and Russia comes to play. I’m from an Armenian background, and our country was part of the Soviet system and exposed to the similarly dark forces that Shostakovich himself experienced. A lot of his music finds its power in its depiction of human suffering. Just think of the Seventh Symphony, and its description of the siege of Leningrad.
Beyond that, I played Shostakovich quartets when I was a member of the Tokyo String Quartet. His, along with Bartók’s, are the greatest quartet sets of the 20th century. We didn’t play all the Shostakovich quartets, but enough for me to be deeply drawn in to its very powerful language.
Q: How would you describe that language?
PO: It’s extremely intense, but it’s also very accessible and very direct. In 1994 we played a Beethoven cycle in Vienna while the Borodin Quartet played a Shostakovich cycle. Hearing his music alongside Beethoven’s left a very powerful impression on me.
Q: Are there plans for you to record any Shostakovich works with the TSO?
PO: We’ve made a recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh for TSO-Live, the label we launched just four months ago, and we will record his Eleventh Symphony in the week leading up to our October 4 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
October 4 at 8 pm
Ute Lemper, vocalist
Peter Oundjian, baton
Weil: The Seven Deadly Sins
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905”
Interview by 21C Media Group