Gregorian previews Shostakovich Seventh

Feb 24, 2012

The MSU Symphony Orchestra's next concert features the Symphony #7 by Dmitri Shostakovich. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with MSU Director of Orchestras, Leon Gregorian, about this historical symphony.

LEON GREGORIAN: Well, the Symphony #7, the “Leningrad,” of course was written at the time of the war. And Shostakovich just made it even bigger than it perhaps should have been, considering that there were no musicians around. Either they had left the country, or they were at the front lines, or they were somewhere else in the Soviet Union and could not come to Leningrad to defend the city. And so on.

I mean, it’s so big, that we could not rehearse in our normal 120 (Music Building) rehearsal room, we had to go to Demonstration Hall to rehearse because that’s bigger. However, acoustically, it’s not very good, nor is room 120, so thank God Wharton Center has given us two additional rehearsal times in the hall, which makes it a little bit easier for everybody concerned. Anyway, but it’s just a great work. It just hits you in the soul, it really does.

MELISSA BENMARK: The story behind it that I was reading was just incredibly political and complicated and sad. It sounds like nobody’s really sure if he was writing it about Stalin or about Hitler when he first wrote it. It was certainly all entrenched in the wartime politics. Do you talk to the orchestra about kind of the background behind it?

GREGORIAN: Yes, I have talked to the orchestra. Each movement I’ve sort of given some sort of historical background to it. And some books vary as to what it really should be, and so on. But it is rather political. I mean, there was never love lost between Stalin and Shostakovich. But Shostakovich was such an international figure, Stalin could not touch him. But Shostakovich said, whoever Hitler did not kill, Stalin did that later. Because he murdered twenty million. So, it is political, and I think the circumstances certainly warrant this kind of a symphony. You could not write a twenty minute work.

BENMARK: It’s interesting because the accounts were that when he would play, even with a small group of musicians, what he had written so far, people would cry, people would want to hear it again. Internationally, other composers basically kind of trashed it, it sounded like.

GREGORIAN: It was very interesting because when the first performance was to take place in Russia and so on, they had to gather musicians. Because they were not there. So with such a large orchestra, they needed everybody they could get their hands on. So consequently, whoever was available was at the first performance. And interestingly enough, it was a smash hit.

And then there was a big war between Toscanini and Stokowski as to who would get to conduct the premier in America, and so on. And of course, Toscanini won in the end. It was very, very popular during the time. But I think now it is not played as often as like, say, the Fifth or the First or the Ninth or the Tenth. And because of the fact that it calls for such a large orchestra, it’s sometimes financially prohibitive. And you can’t do it with one rehearsal because it’s so long.

BENMARK: I don’t know if this is absolutely true, but I read that the score was gotten out of the Soviet Union by way of Tehran, ended up in England, ended up in America, and Toscanini recorded it with the NBC Symphony, and Shostakovich got back to him and said, “What a hack job!”

GREGORIAN: Well, that’s absolutely true. Because as much as Toscanini did to present that, it was pretty much a self-indulgent type of a thing. Because Toscanini was not Shostakovich’s favorite conductor. In fact, he said it often times, it was Leonard Bernstein. That he really enjoyed his interpretation of his works, and so on. He showed a lot of individuality and some perception of what it was about.

I think the interesting part of this entire symphony is the slow sections. Because it’s one of the most beautiful sections that you’ll ever hear in your life. Because that’s when you really hear the tragedy of war. And also you hear the tragedy of people who suffered, for 900 days, the Siege of Leningrad.