Decimal D-day

By Lawrence Cosentino

LSO tackles Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony

Orchestras love to tie neat little titles around subscription concerts, like “The Power and the Passion” or “From Russia, with Love.” They’re usually cheesy and easy to ignore, except when they’re not there.

The Lansing Symphony’s second MasterWorks concert of the season, on Oct. 6, is baldly billed as “Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.” The subtext: You can’t put a bowtie on this bear.

“It’s a special occurrence,” symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt said. “It’s one of the major events of the season.”

The bare title is not just a show of respect for the music’s wordless mysteries, but also a signal that Lansing’s home team is ready to dive into heavy music a lot of big city orchestras don’t tackle.

“We are fortunate to have an extraordinary pool of musical talent in mid-Michigan,” Muffitt said. “They can handle anything we put down in front of them.”

It’s also a nod to a maturing Lansing audience, although it doesn’t take a master’s degree in music to follow the heart-on-sleeve, hammer-on-anvil-and-stirrup music of Shostakovich.

“His musical style is elemental,” Muffitt said. “He uses simple ideas, the way Haydn and Beethoven did, and grows bigger and bigger musical forms.”

Shostakovich stirs people at a gut level, a knack Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin tried like mad to exploit. And he wasn’t the only exploiter. Shostakovich’s style is so accessible that his Fifth Symphony was stolen for the 1958 horror film “The Brain Eaters.”

“More than most composers of the 20th century, there’s an immediate impact, even on someone unfamiliar with his music,” Muffitt said.

The Tenth combines a deeply personal voice with epic, even cosmic, scope.

Under Stalin, Shostakovich divided his talents — and maybe his soul — in two. Publicly, he churned out big symphonic music that earned him prizes, made him an international star, put him on the cover of Time magazine, kept the cultural commissars happy and, last but not least, kept him out of the Gulag. (Many of these works were embedded with subversive codes, but that’s another story.)

Privately, he poured himself into anguished, confessional masterpieces, often for string quartet, and locked them in his desk drawer.

When Stalin died in 1953, the composer’s public and private voices could fuse at last. They had a hell of a story to tell.

“He’s liberated,” Muffitt said. “That’s what I find so fascinating. His musical style changed.”

The Tenth turns on a cyclonic portrait of Stalin that will doubtless take up a lot of rehearsal time, but many listeners will be absorbed by the slow winds of meditation that curl at the edges.

“There are long, long passages where one solo wind instrument is carrying the ball, whether it’s the clarinet, the flute, the bassoon,” Muffitt said.

When Stalin is dispensed with, out pops a four-note, Bach-solid theme that stands in for the composer himself. The struggle between freedom and necessity, between Shostakovich and his exploiters, is painted so vividly it feels more like a physical fight than philosophy. Finally, the Bach-like theme squirts away, like a salmon through a bear’s paw, and darts upstream to freedom.

Muffitt finds the Tenth liberating for a conductor as well.

He’d prefer not to be distracted by endless arguments over what music “means.”

“That’s dangerous territory, especially with Shostakovich,” Muffitt said. “Even his own words didn’t line up. He gave us a lot of contradictory information.”

Muffitt contrasted the Tenth with Shostakovich’s more famous Fifth Symphony, with its gray strata of ambiguity, custom blended to please Stalin and save the artist’s life.

“For the conductor, the Fifth Symphony is the greatest enigma,” Muffitt said. “How tongue-in-cheek is it? Is it saying, ‘OK, you want some happy music, here’s some happy music?’ There have been barrels of ink spilled on this.”

The post-Stalin Tenth, by contrast, is written in a “sparse” language that leaves little room for spin.

“The musical intent is very clear,” he said. “I find myself questioning less.”

That leaves Muffitt and his legions free to bear down on the score. “Our job is to execute what the composer has written and implied, and then it’s up to each listener to decide how they’re going to react,” he said.

The hardest working man in show business, at least in Lansing Saturday, will be principal bassoonist Michael Kroth. He not only has to carry a lot of the Shostakovich, but will be featured soloist in the Mozart bassoon concerto earlier that night.

Kroth is more than up to it. When major orchestras across this country need a substitute, they call the 517 area code.

“Milwaukee Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony — they all call Michael,” Muffitt said. “We have many superstars in our orchestra, and it’s really great to put them out there.”

The evening also includes Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” overture, a brief yet stormy precursor to later romantic tempests of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz.

“Wagner hated Mendelssohn’s music, but this piece he loved,” Muffitt said. “When Mendelssohn was on, he was in the zone. This is one of those fully inspired pieces of music from beginning to end. Nothing out of place, no filler, pure inspiration.”