“Funny” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when the name Shostakovich is invoked.
Born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia, he was old enough to experience the October Revolution and its long, drawn-out, violent aftermath seems to have made a deep impression. As a student and a musician he was shaped — and misshaped — by the cruel regimes that followed. His experiences manifest in the often tortured and tangled structures and harmonies, especially of his largest works.
But in 1957 his son, Maxim, turned 19, and for his birthday the great Russian modernist wrote a piece of music — his “Piano Concerto No. 2” — which he premiered at his graduation from the Moscow P. I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
“It’s a funny piece,” said pianist Denis Kozhukhin, who will present it Friday and Saturday with Donald Runnicles conducting the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra. “There is drama in this music, but somehow there is a lot of tenderness, too.”
The second movement, for example, “contains probably one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by Shostakovich,” the 33-year-old phenom said.
“And another funny thing, he introduces in the third movements passages from Hanon exercises.” The bane of every piano student, Charles-Louis Hanon’s endless pages of scales and arpeggios and various variations are used to drill into young hands and heads precise technique, fingering and timing. “In a way, he was showing his son that even these boring exercises can be part of making beautiful music.”
Since winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2010, Kozhukhin has been called one of the greatest pianist of his time by many critics and fans. His flawless technique and precise emotionality make him a joy to observe in performance, as audiences from Chicago and San Francisco to Norway and Japan can attest.
This will be Kozhukhin’s second visit to the Tetons. He made his debut here in 2017 (a year late: visa issues prevented him from making a scheduled 2016 performance) with Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.” After that performance he spoke with Maestro Runnicles about his return and selected Shostakovich’s second concerto to perform.
“It’s very exciting,” he said of the piece. “It passes too quickly for me.”
While some over the decades have dismissed it as “Shostakovich light,” it is intense and dramatic. Among the challenges it presents the pianist is that the orchestra often plays quietly, putting the pianist out in front for much of its 20 minutes.
“I have to be very present the whole time,” Kozhukhin said. “When I’m playing the adrenaline is really pouring.”
As with his last visit, Kozhukhin also will perform some chamber music. On Thursday he and Runnicles will share the piano bench for selections from Rachmaninoff’s “Six Morceaux” (six musical “morsels”) for four hands. While written early in the composer’s career (1894), they still exhibit Rachmaninoff’s melodic brilliance.
“These don’t have the complexity and maybe the drama and obsession with death that Rachmaninoff has later in his years, but, yeah, it is charming music,” Kozhukhin said. “I like looking at the early pieces and especially pieces that humanize” a composer.
“I don’t believe simplicity is a bad thing,” he went on. “Every great composer sooner or later tries to do something that’s simple. These were probably written for sight reading or to perform at a salon, as was often done then.”
This weekend’s orchestra programs will also feature “This Midnight Hour” (2015) by Grammy-nominated composer Anna Clyne, who has served as composer-in-residence for orchestras in Chicago, Baltimore, Paris and Berkeley, California.
Four preludes by Claude Debussy (written between 1909-1913) and arranged for orchestra by Colin Matthews represent what many consider the dawn of the modern age of classical music, and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (1945) concludes the evening, with the 20th-century Englishman’s delightful variations on a theme by Henry Purcell. ￼