Shostakovich and classical music heart of festival

by Amy Kingsley

This year, classical ensembles around the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

The anniversary happens to coincide with an annual invasion of top-notch musical performers North Carolina residents know as the Eastern Music Festival. Although it is not one of their banner events, festival planners have scheduled an evening dedicated to the Russian composer on July 24 in the Carnegie Room of Guilford College’s Hege Library. In addition to that event, the musical directors have sprinkled the summer’s classical music recitals with a number of the artist’s pieces.

Shostakovich, a musical prodigy who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, rose to international prominence at the age of 20 with the publication of his First Symphony. That work, and the others from his early period emphasized experimentation and the occasional use of atonality. Shostakovich penned strident string passages often noted for their emotionality.

While European composers embraced the phenom’s stylistic choices, he came under fire from Soviet censors. In 1936, the composer fell from party grace after an article in Pravda accused him of embracing formalism. He would be rebuked again in 1948.

The attacks compelled the artist to find a middle ground between his embrace of stylistic innovation and the social realism mandated by the censors. Romanticism marks his later works, which shied away from atonality. Despite the compromise Shostakovich continued to have an impact on western composers and performers. His fifth and tenth symphonies are among the most widely performed of his works.

‘“Amid the conflicting pressures of official requirements, the mass suffering of his fellow countrymen, and his personal ideals of humanitarian and public service, he succeeded in forging a musical language of colossal emotional power,’” wrote music critic Laurel Fay.

Of course, if you like classical music but Shostakovich isn’t your thing, the Eastern Chamber Players will be performing a range of compositions every Monday in the Hege Library.

Classical music performances and the school at Eastern Music Festival are the heart of what the annual event is about. In addition to hosting several ensembles composed of the most promising young performers in the country, the festival has secured some internationally renowned talent.

Ellis Marsalis, a member of jazz music’s first family, will be in town alongside Grammy award-winning violinist Joshua Bell. Violist Roberto Diaz, who has performed around the world, and cellist Xavier Phillips will perform and conduct master classes for the students.

In fact, the Eastern Music Festival’s slate of classical music is so full that it appeals even to those with the most marginal interest in it. Starting on June 24 and running for the next five weeks, the number of performances will average two a night. These range from outdoor pops concerts to intimate chamber music and includes contemporary compositions by ’80s hitmaker-turned-classical-aspirer Billy Joel.

Classical fans need not worry if one of the other concerts intrudes on plans to attend the Shostakovich concert. The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra will honor the composer later this year. It is one way to gain an acquaintance at least with a great composer immortalized in the naming of an Antarctic peninsula. At that Southern end of the planet it pushes into the choppy sea adjacent to the Beethoven Peninsula, Bach Ice Shelf and Stravinsky Inlet.

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