As the members of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) took the stage for their season finale performances of Stravinsky and Shostakovich at Meany Hall on Saturday evening, granite clouds rained dramatically over the surrounding University of Washington campus, appropriately evoking the composers’ St. Petersburg roots. The program consisted of Stravinsky’s bright, showy Circus Polka (1942), as well as two works by Shostakovich – the notoriously technically challenging Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major (1959) and the emotionally shattering, rarely performed Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1943) – a set that only orchestras as adventurous and spirited as LUCO would work into one program.
The prolific and buoyant director of LUCO since 2000, Christophe Chagnard, joyfully swept up to the conductor’s platform and led the group through the two-toned tents, popcorn, and enraptured crowds of the Circus Polka. Upon commission, Stravinsky had famously declared that he would only write a polka per the Ringling Brothers’ request if it were intended for “very young elephants.” LUCO succeeded admirably in rallying the energy of several young circus elephants and bringing them to life for the four-minute piece.
In a significant shift in tone, the orchestra then moved away from Stravinsky’s carnival and into Shostakovich’s feverish cello concerto. Virtuosic soloist Michael Center expertly navigated the two worlds of extreme technicality and emotional expression, proving an excellent interpretive match for the solo, 148-bar cadenza. The percussion section and timpanist Rachel Dobrow Stone joined with high-register winds to effectively fill out the mood of grim urgency in the finale.
Following intermission, Chagnard depicted Leningrad (St. Petersburg) of 1943 for the audience, proclaiming that it would be “difficult to think of a darker year in human history, and for Russia [in particular]”. It had been two years since the initial printing of the Soviet propaganda poster featured on the concert program, showing a square-jawed, hawk-eyed, Red Army soldier determinedly glaring into the future, tank cannons ablaze in the background, above the phrase “Вперед! Победа близка!” (Forward! Victory is near!), and the Nazi siege of Shostakovich’s hometown would continue for yet another year. Supplies were extremely scarce, the Russian winters brutal without fuel, and “every month, [tens of thousands] more people died of starvation.” On top of that, Stalin’s authoritarian government was extremely adept at making people disappear if they spoke one wrong word or made art that was not precisely just so.
Such was the context in which Shostakovich penned his heartrending Symphony No. 8 in C minor.
LUCO captured the gravity and depth of the 8th Symphony with a highly conscientious, present performance. As a unit the winds and strings moved under the radar at speeds of varying levels of caution and anxiety. The brass followed Chagnard’s orders closely, joining the winds and strings for several horrific, hair-raising howls, representing the thousands of people the city lost month after month.
Moving deliriously through the constant fear of a knock at the door, imprisonment, and finally to the faintest shred of hope sans optimism an hour later, LUCO performed the five movements of the symphony with careful attention and stirring aptitude.