Entertainment Music

Tuesday 15 October 2019

The fork in the road that led to Tahiti Trot - and 100 roubles

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Composer: Dmitry Shostakovich
Composer: Dmitry Shostakovich

George Hamilton

One of my favourite musical memories is the evening we spent at the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

It's almost four years ago now. The football team was in town for a European Championship match. The musical festival was approaching its climax.

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It was a freezing night. The strict etiquette of concert-going in the Polish capital insists that all outdoor coats are left in the cloakroom.

That detour almost cost us our place in the audience for the first of the performances we'd come to see - you're not permitted to enter the hall once the music has started.

We heard several pianists that night, among them the eventual winner, the first from South Korea to take the prestigious prize, Seong-Jin Cho.

The Chopin Competition, which now runs on a five-year cycle with the next edition in October 2020, sets the standard amazingly high.

As an indication, Maurizio Pollini (1960) and Martha Argerich (1965) are previous winners. On two occasions, no entrant was deemed good enough, and the prize wasn't awarded

We've the Chopin International Competition to thank for some of the 20th century's finest music.

For if Dmitry Shostakovich had not failed to win anything more than an honourable mention when it was first held in 1927, his great body of work might never have come to be written.

A student of both piano and composition at the conservatory in St Petersburg (during his time there it was renamed Leningrad), it's a fair bet that success in Warsaw would have launched his career as a performer.

But following his failure there, he focused almost entirely on composition. Chopin had been a favourite through his youth. There are echoes in his set of 24 Preludes, mirroring Chopin's, taking in every single major and minor key.

Shostakovich was a talented orchestrator - his graduation piece at the Conservatory was the first of 15 symphonies he'd write - but the piano remained close to his heart.

And it's a composition for piano that's arguably the most endearing of all the music he wrote.

Much of his output reflects the torment brought about by the difficulties of his relationship with the Soviet regime under Stalin.

His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, despite popular acclaim, so displeased the authorities that it was banned for almost 30 years.

It wasn't his only work to fall foul of the censor. Indeed, he would ultimately lose his job on the teaching staff at the Leningrad Conservatory.

But the old dictator was gone when, in 1957, Shostakovich came to write his second piano concerto, a birthday gift for his son Maxim.

Two ebullient movements frame the central slow section - elegant, expressive, and full of emotion.

The composer didn't restrict himself to the more formal musical structures.

Earlier material includes two Jazz Suites, reflecting the popularity of the American music that reached Europe following World War I.

Two of his standalone pieces will be familiar. The waltz that was the theme music on the director Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. And the interlude from a ballet called The Golden Age.

'Tea for Two' began life as a song in a hit musical, No, No, Nanette. Shostakovich and a conductor friend were listening to a recording.

Teasing him about his ability to write a full score, the conductor said, "I bet you 100 roubles you can't arrange that for an orchestra."

It took Shostakovich just 45 minutes to come up with what he named 'Tahiti Trot'. He won the bet.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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