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On Shostakovich and why I hate standing ovations

Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending — along with so many others there weren’t enough programs to go around because these guys are that good — a performance by the Gemini Piano Trio at Howard Community College. The concert was the first in a series of “dress rehearsals” of sorts before their big night at Carnegie Hall next weekend (hotcha!). They opened with a Beethoven piano trio with a slow movement as only he can write and ended with a nice Mendelssohn concerto that I couldn’t really concentrate on. This is because what happened in the middle was, much like an Oreo, the best part.

Shostakovich’s piano trio no. 2 in e minor. It is brilliant. It is astounding. It packs so much of the human condition into little more than twenty minutes. If you haven’t heard it, you have spent your life seriously deprived. It is intensity in music form. If you half-ass this piece… you can’t. You will collapse in a pile of broken strings and failure. Look it up; there are a thousand renditions of various dynamics, tempi, and expressions. It has meaning:

One of the major stimuli to writing this work becomes frighteningly apparent in the fourth movement. Much of this movement features music that sounds like Jewish dance music, but somehow grotesquely twisted. Shostakovich, beside writing this trio in his friend’s memory, had wished to express in music his reaction to the then newly-released information about Hitler’s barbarous treatment of the Jews. Shostakovich may have been motivated to write these cynical passages by reports that the Nazis made their victims dance on their graves before execution. After a tremendous climax, Shostakovich brings back the themes from the third and then first movements of the trio, this time rushing them before us at frantic pace. The effect is that of seeing a person’s whole life pass before us. [from the program notes, written by Benjamin Myers]

The Gemini Piano Trio’s recorded version is spectacular, and the performance on Saturday was excellent. Indeed, it had even more fire — more hidden rage — more anguish at a higher intensity than ever before. Music with a gun to its head. As the fourth movement approached its big climax I could feel it rising in my chest and giving me the shakes.

However, this is where I hop up on my soapbox, because while all the needed passion was there, it was also pockmarked with intonation problems and flubbed chords. Not a lot, mind you, but they were there, probably more because of nerves than anything else. And yet somehow they got a standing ovation.

Okay. I don’t mean to single the Gemini Piano Trio out here. Of the concerts I’ve been to in the last… years, really, it was one of the best. But this is the culmination of what I consider to be a disturbing trend. At every single one of those aforementioned concerts, THERE HAS BEEN A STANDING OVATION.

GUYS. Guys! The standing ovation is not something you should be throwing around like a gold star sticker you can buy in sheets of fifty. It’s a big deal. It’s supposed to mean something. And yet every time the performers do a great job you give them one. A great job is not ENOUGH. The standing ovation should be reserved for the exemplar, the apex, the acme, the untouchable, the infallible, the supreme.

Like it? Good. Really like it? Nice! Love it? Fantastic! Did it change your life, move you to new heights, make you feel the way you have never felt before and may never feel again? The confluence of perfection and a musical moment where time stands still – THAT deserves a standing ovation. No less.

If Shostakovich had been there that night to take his composer’s bows, I would have given HIM a standing ovation. What he created is perfection in time. For those who choose to perform his work, I expect you to match him note for note. Until then, you will receive only my sincere applause (take heart – I give this grudgingly enough as it is).

And for the musicians of those concerts I shall attend in the future, if I do not stand up, it does not mean I didn’t truly enjoy it. You see, until such time as the rest of the concert-going crowd decides to take my view of things, I shall be grading standing ovations on an even harsher curve. Someone’s got to keep the universe in balance.


About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


4 thoughts on “On Shostakovich and why I hate standing ovations

  1. Thank you.
    I get static from others (my wife) because I’m not gushing over good. As a musician (barely…a sax player), I am irritated by the compulsion to stand at the end of every performance simply because someone else does (I have the same problem with performers who purposefully stretch out the applause to milk it). If I’m moved I will be on my feet because I NEED to.
    As a performer, I don’t want to see the half-hearted, required rise at the end of a performance. I know when it’s expected and when it’s genuine.
    I applaud your stand to put things in perspective. If you stand at the end of every good performance, how do you show your appreciation of the amazing?

    Posted by ken chaney | October 12, 2010, 10:13 pm
    • I feel your pain, sir. I too have been chastised for my apparent lack of appreciation, and felt self-conscious because I’m the only one still in my seat. But you and I, we are not sheep. We must be strong!

      Posted by Jenn | October 12, 2010, 10:21 pm


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