Exploring Shostakovich


This weekend sees Bromsgrove as the focal destination for visitors flocking from points as far afield as Cornwall and Scotland, the attraction being a performance at the Artrix Arts Centre of the complete cycle of all 15 Shostakovich string quartets by the Dante Quartet.

"Exploring Shostakovich" also offers talks by speakers with an expert knowledge of the composer, many of them as a result of personal acquaintance with him (the closest I ever got was in a conversation with the Russian conductor Alexander Anissimov, who said of Shostakovich "he smoked, he liked football, he liked women..." Another one of the lads, then).

Broadcaster and writer Stephen Johnson is host for the event, giving a general introduction to Shostakovich's heroic efforts to express himself during the reign of terror of Josef Stalin, and introducing each concert over this bust weekend.

Other speakers include Elizabeth Wilson, a cello student of the great Rostropovich, and author of Shostakovich: a Life Remembered; she will be in conversation with David Curtis, who as violist in the Coull Quartet played these Shostakovich works many times.

Another violist, Alan George, talks about his relationship with Shostakovich during the early 1970s, when he and his colleagues in the Fitzwillian Quartet gave the western premieres of the composer's last three string quartets.

Michelle Assay and David Fanning, both academics expert in Russian music, will explore Shostakovich's own musical signature, DSCH, as personal as Bach's own BACH, and Robin Ireland will give a masterclass with a student quartet from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where he is Head of Chamber Music.

The Shostakovich weekend is the latest in a series organised in Bromsgrove by Jennie McGregor-Smith and Jim Page, whose previous successes have included similar occasions devoted to Janacek, Bartok, English Song, and, most recently Beethoven.

"After the Beethoven Weekend two years ago everyone was so enthusiastic that they all said you must follow this with another weekend - so as the last Shostakovich one was over 25 years ago we felt that we could follow it with another one," says Jim Page.

"And with much of Putin's recent behaviour echoing that of Joseph Stalin it seemed particularly appropriate. Besides, in Artrix we have the ideal venue, which has excellent acoustics, good sightlines and plenty of free parking!"

Jim continues by paying tribute to the Dante Quartet, whose Beethoven cycle two years ago was such a success.

"We have long known what a charismatic quartet the Dante are and they have, with Richard Jenkinson as their cellist, a strong local connection. All in the area know what amazing results he achieves with the Orchestra of St John so his presence is an additional attraction.

"And of course the leader Krysia Osostowicz is an outstanding player. By the nature of a quartet the second violin (Yuko Inoue) and viola (Oscar Perks) do not have the opportunity to shine as the others but their sympathetic playing is at the heart of the quartet. The Dantes have been working up to this cycle for two years and I have had many reports of concerts round the country in which their Shostakovich interpretations have been outstanding."

He also enthuses about the speakers involved over the weekend.

"Elizabeth Wilson, whose book Shostakovich - A Life Remembered - is the authoritative book on the composer, is flying over from Turin specially for the weekend and her reminiscences from family members, friends, fellow musicians and other prominent figures will be fascinating to hear.

"Alan George was the viola in the Fitzwilliam Quartet and not only did he go to Moscow to meet Shostakovich but he managed to persuade the great composer to come to York University to hear them play his last three quartets. Stephen Johnson of course is such an acknowledged authority on the composer that his contributions will give a unique authority to the weekend. Two professors from Manchester University, David Fanning and Michelle Assay, will add their authority to the team of speakers and the final speaker will be David Rudkin, who wrote the script for 'Testimony', Tony Palmer's controversial film about Shostakovich's life. This will be shown after the last concert on Saturday evening."

And Jim ends on a resigned, philosophical note.

"We live in troubled times and I think the audience will take away a greater understanding of the difficulties of living in Soviet Russia under Stalin's regime."

*Exploring Shostakovich runs from Friday October 26 to Sunday October 28 at the Artrix, Bromsgrove. All details on 01527 577330, boxoffice@artrix.co.uk, www.artrix.co.uk.

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