Shostakovich: Cello Concerto no. 1, mvt 1
Brian Lee (cello) with Dina Vainshtein (piano)
Culture is knowing; that’s what culture is, knowing what it’s like, who these people were, what they were up against.
— Benjamin Zander
Ben Zander: This is amazing, amazing. You’ve just made so much progress. It’s really so exciting. Was it two years ago when you played the Elegy in the class?
Brian Lee: I think so.
Ben Zander: Two years. He played in a class, we were all closed in during the Covid days, but we went on through the internet and he played an Elegy, and it was a kind of turning point for you about your seriousness and devotion, and it is almost unbelievable what you’ve done in that time, it’s very, very moving. That’s the great thing about this age, is extraordinary things can happen at this age, not at your age, but dramatic transformations, it’s very brilliant, and you deserved to have won that competition, it’s going to be very exciting. And incidentally, they were playing together for the first time, they’d never played, just recognition.
We say it over and over and over again, how great Dina is, but we have to remember it. But it’s a great privilege you have now to play with an orchestra. You have to do more than just play well, you have to be so strong and so in charge that the whole orchestra is going to feel it right to the back of the second violins and the double bases. And you’re not doing that yet, you are near it but you’re not doing that. Partly, you’re struggling against the cello, it’s not a good enough cello for you. Fortunately, your father is in the room so he can pay attention, but you deserve a better cello, which is great, great discovery. I don’t know if you’re going to be a professional musician, I don’t interfere, but music is going to be very important to you.
So here’s what I’m going to tell you, rather than sort of instruct you because you don’t need, who’s your teacher incidentally?
Brian Lee: Eugene Kim.
Ben Zander: Eugene Kim, who was my student? Wow. Well, would you give him my compliments and tell him he’s done a really, really fine job? He was my cello student many, many years ago. He’s a great musician. So the best thing I can do is tell you a story. I was 21 in England, and I went into the Royal Festival Hall, the year was 1960, and I heard this piece for the first time, it was the first performance and Rostropovich was playing it, and it was the first time anybody had heard Rostropovich. And he played that movement, and it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying. Nobody had ever heard anything like it, and the audience was so stunned, all of us were so stunned that at the end of the concerto, there was an ovation that the only comparison I’ve ever seen is the crowd at a final in the World Cup football.
They went crazy as if it was nothing to do with music, and in a sense it isn’t to do with music, it’s to do with persecution, and with suppression, and anger, and terror, and no way out. Did you notice, the cello never stops playing? Because you know what would happen if the cello stopped playing, he’d be killed. And your protagonist or your enemy is the horn, and the horn is like a predatory animal chasing a creature, trying to kill it, and that’s life in Soviet Russia. And I don’t need to look at Dina for her to nod ahead because I know what her life is like.
And we are not far off that right now, so I think this generation is experiencing what Shostakovich experienced every day, no way out, no way out. And he lived in that terror, and his face, he never smiled. Mysteriously, he smiled in his coffin. They say that his face had a smile in his coffin. But otherwise, he came here to Boston during the festival, a Russian festival, smoking, incessantly smoking, smoking, smoking, and he was so nervous and so ill at ease, and he was one of the greatest. And who was at that concert? Benjamin Britten, my teacher, Benjamin Britten was at that concert. And Benjamin Britten went crazy, he’d never heard this music. Nobody had heard it, it was the first performance. Can you imagine that I carried that memory, that’s what it was like? And Benjamin Britten went round afterwards, I didn’t go because I didn’t know Rostropovich at that point, I got to know him later, but Britten went round and they made a lifelong friendship until Britten died.
And Rostropovich, he wrote the pieces for… This was a very intense time musically, the Russians were dominating musically. The greatest cellist who had ever lived suddenly had appeared, and he didn’t play like the Latin cellos, with warmth, and with freedom like Casals, and Cassadó, and Fournier, Tortelier, and all those great Latin, they were all Latin. He was Russian, and he sat there like a bank clock, with this grim face, and out of his cello came the most terrifying sound I’d ever heard in my life. And if you could get some of that feeling, even at the first rehearsal. So you walk in, and you are not a young person who’s won a competition, you’re somebody with a message to give to the people in the orchestra that they actually didn’t know until you’ve come along. Do you think we can do that?
When that (singing) that’s a Jewish theme. One of the things Shostakovich discovered, he wasn’t Jewish, but he loved Jewish people and he loved Jewish culture and music, and his music is full of Jewish music. He even wrote pieces, Jewish folk pieces, which I’ve performed, they’re fantastic. And so you have to take on a Jewish cry there, Klagende, and what Mahler called, “Klagende” the despairing cry. So when you begin, it’s like asking a question, (singing). And the answer comes here, (singing). Should we just try the opening and see if we can get that feeling? And don’t hang around a lot, Rostropovich was always in a hurry. I remember him playing the Bach C major suite, and the chair was out in Symphony Hall, and he came in. He came in like this with his cello. He’s holding his cello like that, and he went singing). I swear, the first note was played before his bottom hit the chair. And all this sitting around, and waiting, and touching your glasses and tuning, don’t do that, just start. And then people will say, “Wow, he has some business to get to.” Here we go. And (singing). Here we go (singing). Here we go. No, go, go, go.
Exhausted. Running. And coming and chasing. Chasing. I’ll get you. I’ll get you. Trying. Panting. Exhausted. Exhausted. Exhausted. That’s Right, well done. Right, right. While that was happening, I felt something busting out of you, Dina, which had been waiting to burst, out a profound anger of what’s happened to your country, and it can only be expressed in music really with that kind of violence and relentless intensity. Can you play without glasses?
Brian Lee: Yes.
Ben Zander: Great, do. I’ll give them back. This is the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, it’s full of 115 kids that play this way. No wonder people are stunned by that orchestra, because when you play like that, you’re not holding anything back, you’re really giving everything. And sometimes the aggression of those chords is almost comical, and it’s supposed to be. There was something about this mad character with the bald head, it looked like a bang clock going… It wasn’t polite company. And it releases something in us as human beings that is not normally available. And Dina, you are just amazing how you made music, how you made that come alive in the orchestra with the horn pounding, it was absolutely phenomenal, and you understand, you feel it. You know what culture is? Culture is knowing, that’s what culture is, is knowing what it’s like, who these people were, what they were up against. You know what caused this piece to be written was his friend Pasternak, who was a great writer, had been blamed and punished by the government for writing Doctor Zhivago, of all things.
So he was persecuted like Navalny is now, same thing. You know about Navalny? I don’t know if Gerylin, are you in the room? Is Gerylin here? Gerylin was going to come, she’s her dear friend, and she made a film about Navalny, which was just nominated for an Oscar, and she was going to come this morning. But this is a world of such cruelty, such unrelenting cruelty and carelessness that people like Shostakovich were destroyed basically. But still they were great artists, and through their music, they could get that message out into the world, and it’s still powerful today, it’s not limited by the facts. In 1960, I was 21 and we were vaguely aware, Khrushchev was in power, and you remember the missile crisis in Cuba that came later with Kennedy?
He was just on his first visit to America, and everybody was in anxiety about like now, the same thing, nothing has changed really. But when Rostropovich appeared, I don’t even remember who the orchestra was, probably the London Symphony, I don’t remember what else was played, I don’t remember who was conducting, I just remember this astonishing figure. And you were doing that right now with a little help. But all I’m doing, what is my role? My role is to unlock what’s already there. It was there, I didn’t put it in, you had it inside you, but there are lots of conversations which keep you from doing it. Conversations about propriety, and competition, parents, and schools. And I said the same to the trio, don’t let all that keep you back. And particularly you are in an orchestra, you’ve got a whole orchestra waiting for you, play like that.
And if you make a mistake, how fascinating. Don’t play for to avoid mistakes, don’t play to avoid mistakes, don’t live to avoid mistakes, go for it. And when you make a mistake, clear it up, learn from it, move on, it’s not about that. When you play the very difficult (singing), you are looking at your fingers, I don’t know what you are looking for. I don’t think you need to do that, right? But you’re great, you’re doing fantastically well. You have a problem, you may have to become a musician. It’s a very serious problem. And your father’s probably saying, “No, please, no, no, please, sciences are safer.” Actually, it’s not true, music is safe. You know why? Because people need music, always, they need music and they need great musicians. And if you have something burning inside you to give away, I’m not pushing, I never advise people about their career. People ask me a lot, “What should I do?” And I tell them a story, which was somebody came to me once and asked for advice, should he be an organist or a comedian? I said, “Well, obviously an organist.” Well, it was Dudley Moore. Do you know who that is? It was one of the most successful comedians America’s ever seen. So I was wrong about that.
I don’t give advice, but I can give you a kind of blessing if you like. Not a religious blessing, but a blessing of courage, which is you are remarkable, and the progress you’ve made in the last two years is just spectacular.
Brian Lee: Thank you.
Ben Zander: Wonderful. So congratulations. When we did the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony in Greece last summer, and you almost missed it you scoundrel because you wanted to row instead or rather tell the people how to row in the back of the boat, but I discouraged that decision. Anyway, but do you remember the feeling of that orchestra playing the final section of the Shostakovich Fifth? It’s the same thing, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s amazing. Well, look, congratulations and I’m very glad you came this morning, and I’m particularly glad that you came along with Dina. Thank you. Good. Now we have one more. Good.