Program Notes: Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2

Seattle Symphony Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony in music by Caroline Shaw, Shostakovich and Beethoven featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein on Thursday, November 12, 2020 at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.



Our program tonight begins with contemporary composer Caroline Shaw’s dramatic Entr’acte. Although Shaw initially composed the work in 2011 for the Brentano String Quartet, she later expanded the piece for a chamber orchestra in 2014. Entr’acte incorporates many elements of Classical string quartets from the 18th century, including simple and enjoyable melodies, as Shaw was particularly inspired by the works of Joseph Haydn. And yet, Shaw masterfully engages with modern compositional trends as well. In her notes for the work, Shaw described her love of changing expectations: “I love the way some music suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.”

As you listen to this piece, try to find Alice stepping through her looking glass. The work starts out slow and contemplative as all the strings play together. It begins to transform, however, as Shaw incorporates silence and dissonance — that is, harmonic tension — into the melody. Following an anxious middle section, Entr’acte ends with a return to contemplation, with the solo cello that closes the piece and Shaw’s use of silence to calm the anxiety in the strings.

Scored for strings


Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 126
Scherzo: Allegretto
Finale: Allegretto

BORN: September 25, 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
DIED: August 9, 1975 in Moscow, Russia
WORK PREMIERED: September 25, 1966, in Moscow, Russia, conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, with cello soloist Mstislav Rostropovich

The strings continue to dominate our program in Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto. This work features a virtuosic solo cello accompanied by a small orchestra. Shostakovich composed both his first and second cello concertos for his good friend, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The two first met when Rostropovich took a course from Shostakovich at the Moscow Conservatory in 1943, which led to the composer noting the cellist’s extraordinary talent, writing that the musician had an “intense, restless mind” as well as a “high spirituality that he brings to his mastery.” Shostakovich would not compose his First Cello Concerto  until 1959, however, but soon followed it with the Second Cello Concerto  in 1966.

Rostropovich premiered the work on September 25, 1966 at a celebratory concert for Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday. Although the composition is entitled Cello Concerto, Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman that it could also have been named “the Fourteenth Symphony with a solo cello part.” This quote speaks to the balance between orchestra and soloist, and the crucial role played by the orchestra —  not merely accompaniment.  

Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto is dark and dramatic. It begins with a solo cello playing a mournful melody. The orchestra continues this somber atmosphere when it enters, enhancing the cello’s descending line with dissonant harmonies. As you listen, note the striking contrast between the opening and the development (the middle section in which the themes are transformed). Shostakovich shifts the mood away from  the melancholy melody with a lively, dance-like melody. This change does not last, however, as the cello returns to the initial descending theme in the final minutes of the movement.

In contrast to the bleak first movement, the second movement is bright and animated. This movement features a wink at the friendship between Shostakovich and Rostropovich, as the composer briefly uses the melody from a popular 1920s Russian song. This inside joke dates back to a New Year’s Eve when Shostakovich jokingly named his favorite song as “Bubliki, kupite bubliki!” (“Bagels, buy my bagels!”) to his friend. The witty repartee between  the two appears in the movement as the cello joyfully interacts with the orchestra. In particular, note the conversation between the soloist and the horn at the end of the movement, which begins a seamless transition into the third movement.

Following an emphatic brass fanfare at the opening of the third movement, the cello plays a virtuosic cadenza before joining with the orchestra. Shostakovich continues the dialogue between the cello and the orchestra in this movement:  the flute interacts with the cello as together they present the melody. Although the movement features an upbeat section as well, the cello once again creates its dark and contemplative atmosphere at the end of the work. The piece ends as the cello fades away, accompanied only by a small percussion ensemble.

Scored for solo cello; flute and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 3 bassoons (the 3rd bassoon doubling contrabassoon); 2 horns; timpani and percussion; harp; strings


Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
Allegro vivace e con brio
Allegretto scherzando
Tempo di menuetto
Allegro vivace

BORN: December 1770, in Bonn, Germany
DIED: March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
WORK PREMIERED: February 27, 1814, at the Redoutensaal in Vienna, conducted by the composer

Beethoven composed his Seventh and Eighth symphonies in quick succession (in the summers of 1811–1812) and the two are often linked together. And yet these two works were received very differently: while the power and drama of the Seventh was lauded, the comparatively lighthearted Eighth seems to have been misunderstood. When asked why the Eighth was the less popular work, Beethoven offhandedly responded, “That’s because the Eighth is so much better.”

The first movement features a lively and symmetrical opening theme similar to those found in the music of Mozart or Haydn. Beethoven weaves the lighthearted melody throughout the rest of the movement and develops it through different instruments. Although the first movement follows the conventions of a Classical symphony, the second movement diverges from expectations. Rather than giving us a slow and contemplative movement Beethoven maintains the joyous mood with a jolly melody in the strings above pulsing wind and brass. The third movement provides still more surprise, as Beethoven composes a delightful minuet instead of a scherzo like many of his previous symphonies — a return to Classical convention which seems out of place in a late Beethoven symphony. The final movement is fast and jovial. Beethoven pushes the pace at a rapid tempo, developing a boisterous opening theme and enchanting second theme to arrive at the emphatic conclusion to the symphony.

Scored for pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets; timpani; strings

© 2020 Megan Francisco

Posted on November 10, 2020