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From Childhood With Love

What it feels like to play Shostakovich's 10th symphony, unbridled.



One of the less glamorous parts of my job as principal second violin of the Richmond Symphony is that I must ensure that the bows of the second violins always slice through the air in the same direction as those of the firsts -- for safety as much as anything else. In the business, we refer to this task as “doing bowings,” and it is only slightly more artistically satisfying than filling out a standard achievement test.

So imagine my surprise when, while doing bowings at my kitchen table a few weeks ago in preparation for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra's upcoming performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's monumental Tenth Symphony, my throat tightened and tears came to my eyes. As I scanned through my part, no. 2 pencil in hand, I could hear the whole orchestra swelling underneath the violins. Although I hadn't played the piece in nearly 15 years, the entire emotional journey of the symphony hit me all at once -- the pain, the fear, the loneliness, the triumph. I realized that, like a first love, Shostakovich 10 still shaped me.

I was in eighth grade and starting my second year in the Portland Youth Philharmonic, an orchestra with a reputation for performing pieces that are widely considered best left to professionals. The announcement that our 1999-2000 season would open with Shostakovich's Tenth symphony was met with a chorus of naysaying; not only is it one of the Soviet composer's more technically difficult works, it is also quite emotionally intense. We thrived on the challenge. At 13, my brain still melted when confronted with double-flats or dotted 32nd notes, but I was determined to get the Shostakovich in my fingers, if only to prove those people wrong.

Our conductor, Huw Edwards, was a sturdy Welshman with an endless reserve of wit and sweat. He took the time to explain to us the historical significance of the piece: after composing his Ninth Symphony in 1945, Shostakovich didn't write another until 1953, after the death of Stalin. Shostakovich's musical signature, D.S.C.H., appears throughout the Tenth, as if declaring victory over the tyrant. Mr. Edwards' passion and intensity inspired us all to root for a composer who had died decades earlier.

When the Richmond Symphony performs Shostakovich 10 next week, we will have four rehearsals in total, all of them within days of the concert. Portland Youth Philharmonic rehearsed it twice a week for three months. When you play a piece of music for that long, it seeps into your bones in a way that isn't possible in one week. The more you play it, the more you learn to love every heart-breaking moment, and the anticipation makes the pain that much sweeter. By the night of the concert, we felt we had bonded with the piece, and each other, for life.

Enthusiasm can yield many undesirable results in an orchestral performance. It makes you want to rush. It makes you blow too hard or press too much. If you get really excited, you might even out-blast the other instruments temporarily. Youth orchestras are the best at enthusiasm. The hormones, the boundless energy, the overcompensation for technical discomfort, the fact that they only get to perform a few times a year -- it all amounts to some seriously charged performances. This energy provokes chuckling among professional musicians everywhere, but the joke is clearly on us.

Recently, I listened to the recording of my childhood performance, and I was moved by how we seem to be playing like our lives depended on it. Our hands might not have been hitting all the right notes, but our hearts were on point. The swells in the brass are distastefully loud, causing them to sound dangerous and menacing, like a tank that might run you over. The strings have teeth, the winds scream, and the percussion section sounds too loud, like heavy artillery. The galloping second movement seems like it's about to run off the rails -- but it never does. Our performance is far from refined, but there is an element of defiance that a professional ensemble would never have.

I still remember the pounding in my chest as I turned the last page. The trumpets were winding up for the climax, and I had to turn in time to play the flurry of notes that underline the final intonement of the composer's initials (D.S.C.H. translates to D-Eb-C-B in German notation). But by that time, I already knew that victory was ours.

Now, after years of specialized training, I can get around my instrument just fine. I eat double-flats and dotted 32nd notes for breakfast. I learn hundreds of notes every week. But these upcoming performances are going to be different. As my bow slices through the air in all the right directions, an old flame will be burning deep inside.

The Richmond Symphony performs Shostakovich “Symphony No. 10” on Mar. 1 at 8 p.m. and Mar. 2 at 3 p.m. at the Carpenter Theatre.


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