Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (copy)

Members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

William Shakespeare and Joseph Stalin were not among those acknowledged in the program for Saturday evening’s Spoleto Festival Orchestra concert. Yet the evening’s program of two massive 20th-century Russian masterworks, would not have been possible if it weren’t for the long shadow cast by that improbable pairing.

Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony both were composed during one of the darkest and most oppressive periods of Stalin’s rule, in which the dictator’s intense interest in matters of the arts meant that composers risked imprisonment or worse if their musical choices strayed too far from Party diktat. Both composers struggled at times to balance their modernist creative impulses with pragmatic, politically safer choices, and these two works demonstrate that struggle, agonizingly so at times.

As conductor Evan Rogister acknowledged from the stage at intermission, it was a surprisingly heavy and somber program, especially for a festival that often serves up a something-for-everyone balanced diet of the familiar and the new. What was even more surprising was that, in the hands of this youthful and passionate ensemble, musically re-living the Great Purge could be such a thrilling, at times even joyous affair.

In early 1936, Shostakovich’s new opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” a shockingly violent reimagining of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, was generating substantial buzz. All seemed to be going well for Shostakovich’s career until Stalin saw, and hated, the work, publishing an article proclaiming it “Chaos Instead of Music” in the state newspaper Pravda the following day.

Shostakovich, the article declared, had committed the mortal sin of “formalism,” becoming too taken with modernist musical innovation to the neglect of proletarian optimism. Both of the works on Saturday evening’s program were written in the two years following this damning pronouncement.

Prokofiev had only recently returned to his homeland after failing to emerge from under the shadow of Stravinsky while in exile in Paris. He first conceived of “Romeo and Juliet” as a ballet, an idea that posed substantial hurdles. After abandoning his early idea of giving the story a happy ending (“Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” he explained), Prokofiev turned in a score to the Bolshoi ballet which they deemed “undanceable.” He then adapted the music into a set of two orchestral suites, excerpts of which the Spoleto orchestra performed in an unusual order.

The evening opened with the stormy “Montagues and Capulets,” the dark and dissonant brass chords setting the stage for the anxious evening ahead. Other standout moments included “Romeo and Juliet (Balcony Scene),” where a divided violin section full of longing sang out over the effervescent arpeggios of the woodwinds, and the warm, stately bassoon solo in “Friar Laurence.”

In the harrowing “Death of Tybalt,” dense chords in metronomic unison suggested both a machine-like brutality and a preview of the horrors to come in the program’s second half. Throughout, Rogister led the ensemble with clarity and economy of gesture, eliciting beautiful ensemble playing and balance.

Shostakovich premiered his Fifth Symphony in April 1937, just over a year after the Pravda affair. While it was characterized by one reviewer at the time as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism,” scholars have long debated just how repentant the composer truly was. The work is full of tuneful marches and brass fanfares, but also overbearing percussion and the sarcastic, funhouse-mirror distortions of tonal harmony that characterize much of Shostakovich’s work. One can hear the Red Army marching through the first movement as victorious, but it is just as easy to hear it as trampling and destructive.

Under Rogister’s baton, the latter interpretation was closer to the surface, as he coaxed the pitiless machine-gun snare drum to the fore. The movement ended with an introspective violin solo, in which the concertmaster underlined the anxious foreboding with a tight vibrato as the lower strings, unmoved, continued the relentless march rhythm.

The second movement, a twisted scherzo, shimmered and seethed like a coulrophobe’s dream of a circus. In the third movement the string sections, divided into multiple parts, drew a rich, vocal-like tone, evoking the thick modal harmonies of the Russian Orthodox church in a somber requiem. Exposed, high solos from the first oboe and clarinet were approached with a fearless yet delicate vulnerability. The final movement, full of brass fanfares propelled ever onward by overbearing timpani, felt like a parade celebrated at gunpoint.

Audiences greeted the premiere of the Fifth with an ovation lasting more than forty minutes. While the Gaillard crowd did not go on as long, their enthusiasm was palpable. The orchestra earned their first standing ovation at intermission, and the evening’s final bows were greeted with screams of approval from the balconies that wouldn’t have been out of place at a high school pep rally.

This is an ensemble that has been stalwartly accompanying difficult opera and choral works throughout the festival, and I suspect a good number of those screaming fans were cheering on their talented peers in the orchestra, who justly took center stage as champions.

Reviewer Michael O'Brien is an ethnomusicologist and musician teaching at the College of Charleston.