Bekker leads CSO in performances of Beethoven, Shostakovich

Charleston Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Yuriy Bekker is director of the Pops series. (Provided)

It is entirely plausible that the first performances of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony could have gotten the composer shipped off to Siberia. Or censored for life. Or executed.

He was walking a fine line and Stalin was none too pleased with that earlier work, the "crude, primitive, vulgar" opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," a tale about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage and banal existence by having an affair and committing murder.

The official condemnations were fierce, and a frightened Shostakovich, denounced as "an enemy of the state," took to sleeping in the hallway lest the commotion of his arrest would disturb his family. People around him were getting killed. Shostakovich himself was called in for questioning, only to discover that his assigned interrogator had been arrested shortly before.

This was the climate in which Shostakovich wrote his 5th Symphony, and he deliberately made it a more compact, straightforward work with plenty of popular appeal. His life and musical legacy were on the line.

The symphony was joyously received. Audiences cried during the Largo movement and leapt to their feet at the brassy conclusion. Shostakovich would live another day. Yet the music is very likely not what it appears to be, and a clarion performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yuriy Bekker revealed what many listeners think they have noticed in the music: irony. The piece is replete with triumphant strains, marching music and folk melody that, in fact, all might be camouflage for criticism of the repressive Soviet state. It fooled Stalin.

Bekker, whose usual role is concertmaster, commanded the score and inspired the players to make each phrase meaningful. It might have been easy to overdo it - the music lends itself to hyperbole - but Bekker didn't let it happen. Instead, he wanted an immersive experience, not one in which you feel battered or blown away. It was a savvy choice to emphasize detail over effect.

For the effect is irrepressible: the aggressive back-and-forth of the strings in the opening moderato movement, the taunts of the reeds in the second movement, the touching sincerity of the slow melody in the third movement (and moments of dirge-like mourning) and the wails and shivers the emanate forth during the finale.

Is this what patriotism sounds like? Maybe, maybe not.

The enlarged orchestra sounded particularly cohesive. Each musician seemed invested emotionally in the undertaking, and that investment paid off. Bekker, who leads the symphony's chamber series and the College of Charleston Orchestra, has said he wants to concentrate increasingly on conducting. Perhaps he should.

But not at the expense of his violin playing. That was on full display during the concert's first half, when Bekker performed (and conducted) Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

Nuance and sensitivity informed this performance, too. Bekker's showed off Beethoven's nicer, gentler side, providing a sweet yet full tone and a fluid, unrushed interpretation. The orchestra might have provided a little more dynamic contrast, but what it did offer was a full-bodied sound during the famously long exposition and a most gracious accompaniment to Bekker's lovely playing.

The next Masterworks program, Nov. 20-22, features Steven White conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 4 and Richard Strauss' stunning "Four Last Songs," with soprano Elizabeth Futral.