Héctor Guzmán, Conductor
Chee-Yun, violin

APRIL 27, 2024 • 8 PM | Christ United Methodist Church

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Vesselin Demirev will be unable to perform as scheduled. We are very excited to welcome back global sensation Chee-Yun to the PSO as guest soloist.

Violinist Chee-Yun’s flawless technique, dazzling tone, and compelling artistry have enraptured audiences on five continents. Charming, charismatic, and deeply passionate about her art, Chee-Yun continues to carve a unique place for herself in the ever-evolving world of classical music. The evening will also include Shostakovich’s landmark heroic period piece, his Symphony No. 5.

This concert is sponsored in part by


Concerto for violin and orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47——————-J. Sibelius

Allegro moderato

Adagio di molto

Allegro, ma non tanto

Vesselin Demirev, violin


Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op.47 ——————————-D. Shostakovich




Allegro non troppo





Grand Finale

An American Composer’s Perspective on
Sibelius & Shostakovich


© Robert Xavier Rodríguez




For tonight’s PSO 23-24 Grand Finale, Maestro Guzmán has chosen two works by 20th-century composers from adjacent snowy countries.  From Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, we hear the Violin Concerto, and from Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, we hear the Fifth Symphony.




When you look up “Sibelius” on Google, the first hits are about the music notation software which is widely used by composers and publishers.  Two brothers with the last name of “Finn” created the program, so they named it after Jean Sibelius (1865-1952), the national composer of Finland.  Sibelius remains a legend in his home country.  Finns sing his “Finlandia” hymn as their national anthem and, until the euro came along, they put his picture on their money.


Sibelius is best known for his seven powerful symphonies, which show the inspiration of Richard Wagner and Sibelius’ friend and rival, Gustav Mahler.  An unabashed Romantic, Sibelius resisted the musical language that has prevailed in the musical world since the 20th Century.  As he approached 60, he began to experiment with more adventuresome sounds, but then, like Rossini, he decided to retire early.  He, thus, spent the next three decades resting on his considerable laurels until his death at 91. 


The Violin Concerto in D Minor dates from 1905, with a premiere performance conducted by no less a giant than Richard Strauss.  Sibelius had aspired to be a concert violinist himself, so the violin writing, while extraordinarily difficult, is brilliantly idiomatic.  The music is both rhapsodic and tightly organized, and it shows the composer at his best, even though, during that period, he was drinking heavily and sometimes had to be dragged from the tavern to his studio.


In the opening Allegro, the solo violin quietly presents the lyrical first theme over a gently rippling string accompaniment.  A more aggressive second theme provides contrast, with the two ideas dueling throughout.  Strangely, there is little give-and-take between the solo and the orchestra.  Instead, the violin spends most of its time in extended soloistic passages with light instrumental accompaniment separated by beefier orchestral interludes.  The soloist often changes register, with low passages followed by stratospherically high echoes of the same material.  Following Mendelssohn’s example, Sibelius chose to put his cadenza not toward the end of the movement, as in Classical models, but in the middle, as part of the development.  The movement ends with the violin in blazing octaves which soar over the combined orchestral forces in a passionately Romantic “big tune” statement followed by a vigorous Finnish version of the Hungarian folk-style finale of the Brahms concerto.


The moving and memorable Adagio could be performed as a separate “Romance” in the tradition of Beethoven’s two short works for violin and orchestra.  Gentle woodwinds introduce the violin’s tender opening statement.  Here, the soloist remains in the calming lower register for several bars before soaring upward over the full orchestra in the impassioned middle section, after which the quiet opening returns.
The Allegro Rondo Finale is a rowdy scherzo in which Sibelius merrily continues the virtuosic gypsy-style music from the end of the first movement.  It features the triple meter of the classic polonaise (One, and-a, TWO, and-a, Three, and-a), which prompted Sir Donald Tovey to characterize it as a “polonaise for polar bears.”  Lewis Carroll’s word “galumphing” (combining “gallop” and “triumphant”) would also apply.  Tovey added, “I have not met with a more original, a more masterly and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius Violin Concerto.”




Unlike Sibelius in Finland, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had to compete with two heavy-hitter compatriots:  Stravinsky and Prokofiev.  He also had some serious predecessors who included Tchaikovsky, the famous “Russian Five” and his teacher Alexander Glazunov.  Critical opinions of Shostakovich are divided.  On one hand, there are glowing reviews that hail Shostakovich’s music as full of “visionary power and originality.”  On the other hand, there are accounts that dismiss his work as “trashy, empty and derivative.”  Both are true, depending upon the piece. 


Shostakovich spent his entire career working in the Soviet Union, composing and teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory.  Stalin’s authorities suppressed the composer’s many original and powerful modernist works as too radical and intellectual.  To feed his family, Shostakovich was, thus, forced to turn to less challenging fare.  As a result, throughout the composer’s lifetime, his output shifted drastically between dynamic masterpieces written for his own artistic satisfaction and pot boilers that adhered more closely to the communist “party line.” 


In 1937, Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47.  It came shortly after the masterly Fourth Symphony and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Pravda had condemned both works for their complexity with the headline, “Chaos Instead of Music.” In that political climate, Shostakovich actually feared for his life, saying “everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed.”  

To save himself, Shostakovich made his next symphony the most “user friendly” of his entire career, with simpler forms and more conservative harmonies and rhythms.  Upon its widely acclaimed premiere, a reviewer called this sudden turnaround “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” implying that the composer had learned his lesson, repented and abandoned his progressive ways.  Shostakovich played along by stating, “I have tried in my Fifth Symphony to show the Soviet listener that I have taken a turn towards greater accessibility, towards greater simplicity.” The music, however, shows that Shostakovich’s supposed populist conversion was largely a mask, through which, in the music, the composer bravely mocked Stalin’s oppression.


The first movement begins with a noble Beethovenian motif in the strings.  The sharply dotted rhythm suggests a Baroque French Overture, such as the somber opening of Händel’s Messiah.  The music builds with sincere, tragic dignity.  Suddenly, a menacing little march quietly appears.  It suggests a twisted version of a Mahler scherzo or a Kurt Weill song:  outwardly playful but with bitter undertones.  Gradually, the military music envelops the full orchestra.  The effect is like witnessing a serious ritual which is suddenly interrupted by an army loudly goose-stepping through.  Eventually, the marchers pass.  The ritual then continues, but the intrusion has spoiled the mood, so the music stops.


A brief, waltzy scherzo follows.  Again, we hear echoes of Mahler, this time laced with sassy snatches that recall Prokofiev.  The music is simple, repetitive and amiable, with no formal, rhythmic or harmonic complexities to rile the censors.


The beautiful Largo continues where the first movement left off, and it is the heart of the symphony.  It opens with a quiet prayer in warmly massed strings.  Poignant woodwind solos continue, after which the full orchestra builds to create a powerful climax followed by a moment of angelic serenity.  This is music of inspired intensity, but it ends all too soon.


The Finale is the most controversial.  The mood recalls the bombastic march of the first movement:  full of Hollywood heroism, with triumphant trumpets and pounding drums to end the symphony in a crowd-pleasing blaze of glory.  To placate the culture police, Shostakovich had even issued a statement, saying, “My new work could be called a lyrical-heroic symphony…I aim to show how—through a series of tragic conflicts and great inner spiritual struggle—optimism is affirmed as a world view.”  Shostakovich, thus, claims to have made exactly the kind of self-correction that Pravda had praised. 


The central section of the movement, however, tells a different story.  The mood of the Largo returns with a quiet chorale that sings of thought, reflection and hope, as if we are recognizing the dangers ahead, looking to heaven for strength and squaring our shoulders to withstand the onslaught to come.  In the light of that interlude and the earlier musical hints, the jubilation of the brassy ending that follows takes on a hollow and ironic ring.  Speaking candidly of the symphony at the end of his life, the composer contradicted his earlier statement about optimism by saying, “It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaking, and go marching off, muttering, ‘our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’”


Whatever Shostakovich’s true intent was, his 50-minute Fifth is the most often-performed of his fifteen symphonies.  After its premiere, it quickly became and has remained one of the staples of the symphonic repertoire.  In the West, we can feel smug that we do not have government censorship of art.  Without significant government support for the arts, however, we have what playwright Edward Albee called “the censorship of the marketplace,” which can be just as dangerous.




Robert Xavier Rodríguez has served as Composer-in-Residence with the Dallas Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony.  His music is published exclusively by G. Schirmer (Wise Music).  He holds the Endowed Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies and is director of the Musica Nova ensemble at the University of Texas at Dallas.