Commemorating Endurance

21. December 2011.

The second of ERSO’s 85th jubilee concerts was a remembrance of dark chapters in the history of north-eastern Europe but also a celebration of the human spirit overcoming and validating suffering through art.

The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Estonian Public Broadcasting have a shared lineage dating to 18 December 1926, the day that broadcasting company Raadio-Ringhääling transmitted the first concert of the forerunner of today’s symphony orchestra. ERSO and ERR are linked to this moment during Estonia’s first independence.  

Befitting an evening of gravitas, the Estonian National Anthem was played to start the program, the full house rising to its feet. And the right man was in charge; maestro Neeme Järvi was at the rostrum resplendent in fancy dress, leading his colleagues through the opening piece for the night, Eduard Tubin’s Symphony No 5 in B minor.

Tubin and Järvi too have a somewhat shared destiny as men who left Estonia due to political crisis; Tubin for Sweden during World War II as the Soviet Union poised to reoccupy Estonia and Järvi to the United States in 1980. It was in America that Järvi brought attention to Tubin’s works and recorded his symphonies. The Symphony No 5 (1946) was the first work that Tubin composed in exile. Its initial movement evokes calamity; dramatic and frenetic with powerful percussion.

The second movement slows the tumult. Gentle pizzicato and soothing passages for strings characterize the middle of the symphony; it is dreamy and opaque.

The No 5’s final chapter ebbs and flows back to its origin. This symphony is a plaintive yet beautiful work. A catharsis for a tragedy that Tubin knew would continue indefinitely. It concludes with the muscular ominous drumming of the first movement.

After an intermission that included wine provided by ERSO for the jubilee, the musical fare didn’t lighten in the least. Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 in C Major, Opus 60, the famous “Leningrad Symphony”, continued the theme of struggle in difficult circumstances. The No 7 is forever associated with the 900 day siege of Leningrad by invading German forces and by extension, due to its promotion by the Soviet State and its western allies, with the massive sacrifices of the Soviet peoples and resistance to fascism during the Second World War. Befitting its theme, it is a massive, bombastic work and one of the longest in the canon, coming in at well over an hour.

Shostakovich pulled out all the stops for the No 7. It contains seemingly everything: parts for vibes, parts for saxophone, parts for piano. Sections of near nauseating underlying dissonance and passages of exquisite beauty. In a piece like this the musical thread can get lost, as it surely did for many concertgoers.

It is worth noting that after the fall of the Soviet Union evidence came to light that much of the No 7 was written before the German invasion. Shostakovich was a bit of a dissident at heart, and the Leningrad Symphony’s ominous themes, especially the opening “invasion” passage can be seen as being as much of an indictment of Stalin’s purges as German conquest. In this sense Shostakovich’s work is a fitting counterpart to Tubin’s. Both commemorate the struggle against oppression in all its forms.

ERSO and Neeme Järvi deserve plaudits for bringing these works to life in the present; an artistic history lesson conveyed through the genius of composition and performance.