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A sculpture in sound reveals a tortured soul

Shostakovich 8th Quartet Uncovered 12 July 2013
7.30pm at The Exchange Gallery, Penzance

This was a multifaceted musical evening presented by Penzance Youth String Orchestra (PYSO) and its director Tim Boulton. Together, they achieved triumphantly the nearly impossible task of revealing the agonizing heart of a composer facing an impossible moral dilemma. A dilemma created deliberately by the Russian authorities - by Stalin himself perhaps – to trash Shostakovich and his compositions, at the same time setting him up as the chairman of the official composer’s guild which slavishly towed the Party line. Shostakovich knew that refusal to accept this position would almost certainly mean being consigned to a Siberian concentration camp or worse. Acceptance meant an outward betrayal of his own fundament musical and religious principles. Fortunately for us he had the inner strength courageously to bear the pain of this betrayal, live to see the end of Stalin, and produce an immense array of magnificent works before his death in 1975.

Penzance Youth String Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s autobiographical 8th String Quartet – arranged for themselves by themselves was a highly charged emotionally powerful experience. These young players had well absorbed the intense tragedy played out in this composition. Their expression of it was deeply felt to an extent many would consider beyond their years. The impact was the more telling because the significance of key themes and events in the work had been illustrated and illuminated earlier in the concert programme. The ebb and flow of the score was skillfully managed. The many sensitive nuances produced a genuine chamber music effect. From an opening, which seemed to creep out of silence, the players took us on Shostakovich’s anguished twenty-minute journey laced with anger and despair with utter conviction. Finally we were returned to the silence with which it began - a silence that the audience was reluctant to break for several minutes. The orchestra then rose to accept the warm applause, which was loud and long!

Before the interval, the performance had been prefaced by a fascinating mixture of text read by players themselves, supplemented by commentary by Tim Boulton. There were film clips of Dresden students interviewing residents who were alive at the time of the allied bombing during the Second World War, and musical illustrations by individual players from the orchestra. In total, these glimpses of the context in which Shostakovich was working gave us a disturbingly vivid picture not only of the atmosphere of terror that surrounded him but also of his terrific bravery which – though much weakened by illness - enabled him to come through it all alive, and still composing!

With a programme containing so many plusses in presentation, one hesitates to identify instances where the level fell short. But there is a need for more work to be done on player’s reading of their script, which can easily be remedied with a little more practice.

Nevertheless, overall, in both parts of the programme we were treated to uniquely imaginative, meticulously prepared performances. Above all, the huge commitment of the players in their performance of this monumental, highly condensed work will linger long in the memories of all who were privileged to be there. Thank you PYSO and Tim!

James Sargent 13.07.13

James Sargent was previously County Music Advisor for Cornwall