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Shostakovich’s magnificent Leningrad Symphony

When Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 premièred in 1942, it was performed by musicians who themselves had survived the siege of Leningrad. The composer himself had been evacuated and watched from a distance as his home town burned. This monumental work, both in length and in scope, has grown into one of Shostakovich’s most popular pieces. For a large part of his life, Pēteris Vasks also suffered under Soviet oppression and for him, music meant a freedom of sorts from external control and censorship. He also wants to use his music to contribute harmony and beauty to a wounded and ravaged world.

He has been called the new conducting wonder, Finnish Klaus Mäkelä, who will take up his position as the first guest conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in September 2018. At the age of 21, he is the youngest ever conductor to be granted an extended contract with the orchestra. Of the three Shostakovich symphonies that Mäkelä will be conducting this season, number seven may well be the most dramatic. At least in terms of the history behind its composition.

The year is 1941. Leningrad is on fire, the city besieged by Nazi forces. In December, Dmitri Shostakovich puts the final touches to his Symphony No. 7. It is intended as a tribute to his native city, but its première in March the following year has to take place in the city of Kuybyshev (present-day Samara), on the banks of the Volga, to which Shostakovich and the other Leningrad residents have been evacuated. Over the following months, a microfilmed score is smuggled to the west and the symphony is also performed in London, New York and Massachusetts.

On August 9, 1942, it is finally time for the Leningrad première with an orchestra comprising 40-50 surviving musicians, who collapsed from exhaustion several times during the rehearsals. The concert has drawn a vast crowd, both inside and outside the the Grand Philharmonia Hall: the concert is broadcast over loudspeakers, and can also be heard by the German troops on the front. The music goes down in history as a symbol of the resistance to the oppression.

The Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks has also written music as an act of resistance. His early music refers to Latvia’s vulnerable position, located as it was between two superpowers. Until 1991, he used his music in the struggle for his country’s independence from the Soviet Union. But his heartfelt music is in equal part inspired by nature: “Nature is magical. I take go for walks in the forest and cannot imagine composing in a large city. Nature inhabits my soul.”

Like his Baltic colleague Arvo Pärt, Vasks’s music has gradually become more minimalist. He has abandoned the experimental and aggressive in favour of harmony, in both expression and content. Each piece has its meaning and as a conductor, Vasks wants to improve the balance of good and evil in the world. “I love music above all else, it forms the very core of my being. In my music, I primarily want to share my joy and my love, as well as the sense that harmony is possible – at least in music.”

Pēteris Vasks, who was the Stockholm New Music Festival’s main composer in 1996, has written choral works as well as orchestra and chamber music. Pater Noster from 1991 is composed for choir and string orchestra. Laudate Dominum was written in 2016, originally for choir and organ, but was soon rearranged for choir and orchestra as well.

Text: Anna Hedelius


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The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra serves as a symphony orchestra for the whole of Sweden. Regardless of where you live you can listen to the orchestra’s concerts through the Swedish Radio’s broadcasts or on their website, and several concerts are also shown on Swedish Television. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is one of the best and most versatile orchestras in Europe – perhaps even in the world. Every year they perform well-loved works from the classical repertoire as well as new music by exciting contemporary composers such as Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Magnus Lindberg and Unsuk Chin. In addition they perform music from popular films and computer and video games and collaborate with leading jazz, pop and rock artists in a constant endeavour to develop and to break new ground.

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