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The Nuanced Reverence of Bernstein, with Koh and the BSO

Violinist Jennifer Koh.
Juergen Frank
Courtesy of the artist
Violinist Jennifer Koh.

Saturday, October 8, 2022
8:00 PM

Violinist Jennifer Koh is the soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium, and Andris Nelsons leads the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 3, “The First of May.”

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Jennifer Koh, violin
Linus Schafer-Goulthorpe, boy soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Elizabeth OGONEK Starling Variations (world premiere)
Leonard BERNSTEIN Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
BERNSTEIN Chichester Psalms
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 3, The First of May

This concert is no longer available on demand.

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons describes Shostakovich's Third Symphony and how its unabashed celebration of the Soviet Communism of the 1920's both reflects the composer's outlook at that point in his life and infuses the piece with a startling relevance to today's Russia. To listen, click on the audio player above, and read the transcript below:

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Andris Nelsons, who is here in Boston for a really interesting program, Bernstein and Shostakovich, as well as Elizabeth Ogonek's "Starling Variations." Andris, thanks a lot for your time today. I appreciate it.

Andris Nelsons Oh, great pleasure being back. Thank you.

Brian McCreath The Shostakovich Third Symphony is such an interesting piece and one that doesn't seem to be performed a lot, but maybe I'm wrong about that. What was your first experience hearing or even conducting Shostakovich's Third?

Andris Nelsons Yes, I haven't conducted it before because both Number Two and Three, it's very, very seldom performed. I mean, I think even probably even in Russia, too, you know. And of course, a great joy to perform all of the symphonies and recording them for the Deutsche Grammophon with Boston Symphony. It's a great, of course, a wonderful, great challenge what we have started and actually is going to an end soon.

Brian McCreath So this is, this week is a sort of discovery for you as well as for the rest of us. The musicians played it at Tanglewood, but still a discovery for them. What do you find in the Third Symphony that's unique to this piece that Shostakovich maybe doesn't do elsewhere? What is it in the Third Symphony that is unlike other symphonies?

Andris Nelsons Well, I personally have the question mark, maybe more than the other ones. What exactly does he mean? You know, because, of course, it is very celebratory of the 1st of May, which in Soviet Union and Communist Russia, and so this is something very patriotic.

And we certainly hear, particularly when the chorus joins the end. And it sounds uplifting, but it's also constantly loud. And it's not only loud in the sense of the balance. And, you know, of course, there is brass instruments and percussion and a chorus. But I remember, I told the orchestra that, and to the chorus, that I think that this is almost a exaggerated, almost a sick, patriotic feeling. It's almost over the top. It's not simply glorifying and say, Yes, I believe in my country, I support my country, or... From one side, of course, when we look to the other symphonies of Shostakovich, either it's later where it's clearly problematic symphonies with the Communist Party and with Stalin. I mean, [Symphony No.] Four would have probably killed him if he would have premiered the Fourth at the time it was composed. Here, there is a hope.

And I think you feel that, Yes, that things will be good and things... And I'm just thinking how much protest it is in this in this symphony, and how much real patriotism. Because I think, at the end, I mean, he was a very, I think, a patriotic person in a normal sense. I mean, proud of his country, of the history of great composers or poets and so on and the culture. And I think he loves his country, but I don't think that he yet has understood at that point what a disaster it brings to him. And how dangerous it actually is and how dangerous it has been.

And I think his reaction, I think, which was the Fourth Symphony where we clearly hear a, such a drama and such a scary moments, that thanks God he postponed the premiere. And, and the Third, it's still having a potential but hasn't gone into that territory of the Fourth. So it's therefore, I think this is still Shostakovich, I think, who says that he loves his country, the Communistic ideas, and so he looks to that, I think, only from the positive side, which it says on the paper or you read, yeah, you know... And so I think somebody who is naive and somebody who is very, very shy and certainly I think also naive a little bit as Shostakovich, I think I could believe that still in this symphony, he is a patriotic for his country.

I mean, it is also very interesting, I mean, or disastrous to realize what happens today in Russia. And now performing any Shostakovich symphony or almost any Russian music which is composed in difficult times, you kind of think, Yes, but if you live now, we are almost almost there, you know, unfortunately, in a feeling where, you know, people are, again, for the opinion, are put in the jail. So it's very, is exactly what happened with Stalin's regime. And this makes the fact that we perform this symphony [and] record more actual, actually, than maybe it was two years ago.

You know, when, even when we performed [the] Second Symphony, I think it was still before the war, and you think, Oh, well, that's very much, I think, from those times. You think it's not so actual, you know. And though looking to the Three, it really could be easily connected to today's regime and today's situation. And this is really scary. And so, I mean, it's very difficult to say shortly what the Third Symphony is really presenting. And the first thing I think I'm sure Shostakovich would tell, that the music is the art form, which is allowing us to express the deepest secrets in our soul. And firstly, it needs to be an opportunity to express it freely. What you feel as a composer, and which you feel as a listener.