Review: Memphis Symphony Orchestra satisfies with Soviet masterwork

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra's Masterworks series typically brings in a vaunted guest performer, mixes in a big crowd-pleaser or two and sometimes adds a surprise bit to keep the seats filled.

This weekend's program was less embellished, but no less satisfying in programming and performance.

There was no soloist, but the guest presence was conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, whose engaging and expressive leadership on the podium was well received by musicians and audience.

The big number of the Saturday night's concert at the Cannon Performing Arts Center (another event was played at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Sunday afternoon) was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Its considerable musical virtues are arguably overshadowed by the conditions of its creation. The composer was a Soviet favorite who had, when the piece was written in 1937, managed to run afoul of the Communist Party's arbiters of culture. He was pressured to represent socialist realism with heroic themes, the better for the proletariat to drive tractors and hammer iron, presumably.

Shostakovich saw friends and patrons denounced and banished, yet he was loath to diminish the music coming from his soul. With his Fifth Symphony, he managed to write a masterpiece that was perceived by the apparatchiks as glorious while being appreciated by the people as a testament to their suffering under Soviet rule.

It was an enormous success. The MSO's performance vividly exposed the sonic illusion of the composer, creating passages that sounded like cheering to some ears and screams of pain to others. The brilliant combinations conveyed a joyless energy, empty triumph and colorless brutality. It's not an easy piece, but it is fraught with meaning and Prieto's interpretation was terrific.

The first half of the evening was a splendid collection of three definitive works of Mexican Nationalism: Revuelta's "Janitzio," Chavez's "Sinfonia India," and Moncayo's "Huapango."

The pieces are well known in Mexico, even to the point, Prieto said, that "Huapango" is more meaningful to his countrymen than Mexico's national anthem.

All were splendid and vigorously performed by the orchestra. The most ingenious work was "Janitzio," with robust dissonances swirling around themes that were cinematic, martial, full of longing and great fun.

It was a terrific concert, but there were more empty seats than usual at the Cannon Center. It's a pity since the program, even without some of the extras, was as good as any, livened by fresh music and a charismatic rising star of a maestro.

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