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Hidden Meanings

Russian composer’s symphony more than meets the ear

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In the 1960s, fans of English pop rockers The Beatles looked for hidden meanings in their songs by playing the records backwards.

In the 1930s, fans of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich found hidden meanings in the premiere of his Symphony No. 5 in D minor, says John Jeter, music director of the Fort Smith Symphony.

FAQ

Fort Smith Symphony:

An Evening With Jeremy Denk

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE — Arcbest Corp. Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith

COST — $17-$45

INFO — 452-7575

Fortunately, neither the Communist Party nor Joseph Stalin noticed.

"The symphony was a huge success," Jeter tells the story enthusiastically. "The Party loves it. Stalin loves it. Audiences love it. It's this traditional symphony, but a little simpler and more straight-forward, not as modern. And it clearly celebrates the ideologies of Stalin.

"But what he really did was write this piece that is in fact very anti-Stalin, and he did it right under their noses."

Shostakovich, Jeter explains, was a darling of the Communist party during the Stalin era in Russia -- right up until 1934, when he wrote an opera called "Lady Macbeth."

"It was a pretty modern piece, sort of like a Quentin Tarantino opera for the period," he describes. Shostakovich was at the debut, as was Stalin -- who hated it and left at intermission.

"That was cause enough to fear for your life when artists and academics were disappearing by the hundreds of thousands," says Jeter. Even Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, panned the opera, decrying Shostakovich as a "generate composer."

"He was about to debut his Symphony No. 4, but he pulled the plug on it," says Jeter, "and took a chance on No. 5 to redeem himself."

Jeter says the piece includes a requiem for all those artists and academics killed by the Communists, a waltz that makes fun of the Communists' affinity for the dance form and an ending that sounds exuberant but is actually "dry and empty." Even in its debut, he adds, some audience members "got it."

Audiences now don't have to, he adds. It's a "super-famous" symphony that's "very brassy and very Russian sounding" and will be a perfect complement Sunday to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73 in Eb Major, also written during "a time of a lot of stress for the composer," the Napoleonic siege of Vienna. Jeremy Denk, considered "one of the most prominent pianists in the world today," will join the orchestra as a guest.

"This will be a truly exceptional evening of great music," Jeter says.

-- Becca Martin-Brown

bmartin@nwadg.com

NAN What's Up on 09/08/2017

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