Thursday, April 7, 2016

In Praise of M.T. Anderson and his Symphony for the City of the Dead

...from San Francisco

First, a big shout out to all the wonderful performers and the enthusiastic audience at David Garner's fabulous Faculty Artist Series program on Monday night!  If you weren't able to join us, I hope you were able to watch the concert stream instead.

Leading up to Monday's concert, I could not put down M.T. Anderson's  YA historical novel, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad--a mouthful of a title that says it all

Now, first off, I have to admit that I've been a fan of M.T. Anderson's books for years, beginning with his equally engaging dystopian Feed--written before dystopia had completely taken over as the style-du-jour, and Handel, Who Knew What He Liked and continuing with Strange Mr. Satie, Whales on Stilts, and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. (He has many more, but those are some highlights.)
Dmitri Shostakovich in 1925

Returning  to Symphony...What a brilliant concept! Who'd a thunk one could use the history of a 20th century classical Russian composer to talk about World War II?  It's an obvious call in retrospect, and beautifully done in Anderson's hands.  Symphony works well on a number of levels: at its core, it's a biography of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) combined with a history of the seige of Leningrad, and it's also a short history on the rise and continuation of Communism in Russia--all informed by and focused on  how both of the latter influenced this enigmatic, great composer who managed to survive in a situation where so many others didn't. (The photo to the right is the young, Harry-Potter-like composer at the age of 19.)

Anderson is honest in his evaluation of what Shostakovich may nor may not have believed and how the exigencies of pleasing Communist dictates may have affected his writing--questions I remember from my own readings in music history. He concludes that we may never know the whole truth in either direction. Nonetheless, we still have the composer's musical testimony, and now we have Anderson's commentary, along with his explanations along the way for non-musical young readers, about musical meaning and meaning in music (not the same thing) for his readers.

Perhaps best of all, reading Anderson's descriptions of Shostakovich's music makes the reader want to go and listen (or re-listen) to his music, especially his towering symphonies and string quartets. How terrific is that, when prose about music--or visual art for that matter--inspires one to go listen to the music itself!

Thank you, M.T. Anderson, for your latest work in cross-arts fertilization...the ultimate in coolth.

What I'm reading: Still Life (the first Inspector Gamache mystery); Margaret Atwood's latest (The Heart Goes Last)

What I'm listening to: Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (this week at SFSymphony!)..but Shostakovich very soon

What I'm working on: Songs by Hans Winterberg, John Harbison and Frederic Sharaf.

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