March 1 2017 01:03 PM

Lansing Symphony unleashes three generations of Russian bears

MSU violin Professor Dmitri Berlinsky, a native of St. Petersburg, joins the Lansing Symphony Saturday for an evening of music by Russian composers.
Courtesy photo

Saturday’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert is a deep dive through three generations of epic Russian music, culminating in the most powerful of all 20th century symphonies, Dmitri Shostakovich’s twisting, tortured Fifth.

The interconnections among the three composers featured in the concert and the violin soloist, MSU Professor Dmitri Berlinsky, turn the screws even tighter.

Berlinsky will play one of his favorite pieces of music, a gorgeous 1904 violin concerto by Russian romantic Alexander Glazunov. From 1905 to 1928, Glazunov was the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where Berlinsky studied while growing up in Russia.

Glazunov was also Shostakovich’s composition teacher.

The bear-ish concert jelled last year, when Lansing Symphony Music Director Timothy Muffitt decided to feature Berlinsky.

“We have one of the greatest violinists walking the face of the earth today, who just happens to live here in East Lansing,” Muffitt said.

As is his custom, Muffitt asked Berlinsky what he wanted to play.

“Secretly, I wanted him to play Glazunov,” Muffitt confessed. “It’s his best piece and a spectacular concerto.”

“I remember that conversation,” Berlinsky said. “I was really surprised he had it in mind as well. But I was really happy, because I haven’t done it here.”

Berlinsky has played the concerto in New York, Russia, and several times in Latin America, but not yet in Lansing.

“It presents all beauty of the instrument, all the singing quality, all the virtuosic elements, everything you can imagine,” Berlinsky said.

Like the classics of Russian literature, the concerto has quirks that almost push it outside the genre.

“It goes with no breaks — more like a concert piece, in one breath,” Berlinsky said.

And Glazunov’s love of ballet jumps out. “It’s very visual,” Berlinsky said. “You can almost see different scenes and characters.”

Instead of ping-ponging themes back and forth, Berlinsky and the orchestra play together most of the time, a troika ride that Berlinsky called “a consistent line.” The harp plays a prominent role, adding to the music’s fairy-tale atmosphere.

“To me, it’s a magical piece,” Berlinsky said.

When Shostakovich was a a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the 1920s, war and revolution raged through the city. They bundled up in four or five coats to keep warm, and Shostakovich smuggled booze in for Glazunov.

In a region ravaged by pogroms and anti-Semitism, Berlinsky credits Glazunov with creating a “unique atmosphere” at the conservatory where Jewish violinists could be accepted into master violinist Leopold Auer’s classes.

“At that time, in the Russian empire, Jewish people weren’t really allowed to live in a major city,” Berlinsky said. “Without Glazunov’s protection, they wouldn’t have been allowed to study with Auer in St. Petersburg.”

Glazunov got special permission from high circles for brilliant Jewish violinists such as Jascha Heifetz, Misha Elman, Nathan Milstein and others to study with Auer, who premiered the Glazunov concerto in 1904.

After the Russian Revolution, many of these great Jewish violinists moved to the United States.

Two years ago, Berlinsky visited the conservatory and found that the current director still sits in Glazunov’s chair.

“The conservatory has an incredible legacy,” he said.

Even as the 21st century marches on, nobody looms larger in St. Petersburg music history than Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music got him in and out of trouble with the murderous regime of dictator Joseph Stalin.

“I grew up with Shostakovich’s music,” Berlinsky said. “I was very young when he passed away, but I was in St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall once when he was there, and his symphonies were performed a lot there.”

In 1937, Shostakovich was in deep trouble with the authorities for writing music they didn’t like, especially an erotic opera damned as “porno-phony” by an official critic. He was so sure he was heading for a labor camp that he had his bags packed and ready.

At the height of Stalin’s purges, Shostakovich came back with a mysterious, emotion-wracked hurricane of a symphony that everyone, from the commissars to audiences around the world, agreed was a masterpiece.

Today, the Fifth Symphony, like much of Shostakovich’s music, is more popular and frequently programmed than ever.

“It’s something everybody gets excited about hearing,” Muffitt said. “It’s great music, and it’s enigmatic.”

Since Shostakovich’s death in 1975, a debate has raged over whether the ending is triumphant, as the authorities required, or deeply tragic.

Muffitt answered without hesitation.

“It’s tragic,” he said. “The clue to me is the bass drum at the end.”

Muffitt had to pause and compose himself as he talked about it. The Fifth rips out strings you didn’t even know you had, deep where the promise and joy of life meet brutal necessity.

“It just builds,” Muffitt said. “You think you know where it’s going. And then, instead of just finishing with the timpani — the ringing, triumphant brilliante of the timpani — he brings in the bass drum. Bam, bam, bam.” He mimed the blows slowly, hitting the wall of the coffee shop where we talked.

“If that doesn’t tell us what piece is about!”

Somehow, Shostakovich managed to cry out in defiance using the melodic, accessible musical language the authorities wanted from him. He lived to write many more Janus-like masterpieces, musical cages where raw emotion paces behind bars of irony.

“I get really upset when I read people questioning Shostakovich, saying that he was a sellout,” Muffitt said. “That makes me crazy.”

To complete the generation-spanning program, Muffitt programmed an overture by a St. Petersburg composer widely seen as the heir to Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke.

Born in 1934, Schnittke was a forerunner of iTunes-era eclecticism, mixing baroque forms, electric guitar, harpsichords, improvisation, whistling and Shostakovich-like drollery into crazy quilts like his “Dead Souls Register” suite.

“He’s totally poly-stylistic, and that’s one of the most interesting things about him,” Muffitt said. “One of my greatest memories as a musician was to do his concerto grosso for two violins and harpsichord. I’d never really folded back the layers of his music before.”

Muffitt senses that post-modern audiences are ripe to discover him.

“I feel he’s going to emerge as one of the giants of the late 20th century, when there was a lot of music that make you think, ‘Oh, this is a great idea,’ but then the audience is totally lost,” Muffitt said. “Schnittke has figured out how to really make an impact.”

Masterworks 5: Music of Russia

Lansing Symphony Orchestra with Dmitri Berlinsky, violin
8 p.m. Saturday, March 4
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 487-5001,