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This is day 8 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

I hate being asked who my favourite composer is. For one thing, the kind of people who ask the question usually won’t have heard of the likely contenders. In any case, as a working musician, it’s your duty and pleasure to love whichever composer you’re playing at the moment (see footnote), like an arranged marriage that works out for the best.

But if I had to choose one, I suppose it would be Shostakovich.  He does comedy, tragedy, irony, melody, harmony, structure, pathos, vulgarity and everything that lies between with a voice that feels so direct and familiar, it’s as if this was the music that I would write if I only could.

When I discovered a few years ago that Shostakovich had written, of all things, a musical, I was as overjoyed as someone might be to discover that Shakespeare had written a bodice ripper. Moskva Cheryomushki isn’t exactly a musical, ‘operetta’ or ‘review’ might be nearer, but that’s immaterial – it’s the fact that you could get Shostakovich distilled into a popular stage work that was exciting. 

I thought I’d never get the chance to hear it, but as it happened, it was only a couple of years later that the first recording came out (the one in the picture above) and I bought it immediately, and fellow Shostakovich fan Christopher Hampson & I cracked open a bottle or three of something and played our favourite bits over and over again, one of which was the ‘Excursion Around Moscow’.

A few years later, Russian music expert & composer Gerard McBurney re-arranged it for Opera North at Sadler’s Wells, and I think that counts as one of my favourite nights out in the theatre ever (and I don’t often enjoy them, to be honest).  From the moment the curtain went up, you were just swept up in a whirlwind of Shostakovich madness. Neither Rozhdestvennsky’s recording or the Kirov’s semi-staged production at the Coliseum last year come anywhere near.  It’s what you would expect, really – I’d worked with Gerard on his ballet for ENB, White Nights, and knew him to be one of the greatest experts on Russian music. Go and listen to his programmes on Sleeping Beauty and The Rite of Spring on BBC Radio 3’s Discovering Music – they’re brilliant.

The extract of ‘The Excursion Around Moscow’ on Studio Series 4 must be the longest frappé exercise in the history of ballet (though you could use it for loads of other things too), but the whole point about this piece is the way it just carries on and on and on, unstoppable in its momentum, energy and humour. It’s musical madness. It’s too fast, too long, and to play feels like doing ballet on a trampoline. And Shostakovich’s command of popular music is breathtaking – you bounce happily up and down the scale once, then twice, then all of a sudden, you find yourself thrown into a harmonic double back-flip at the end of the phrase, and crash land back in the tonic to start again. But then you’re thrown into another key, and so on until you’re exhausted; and then there’s more, and more and more. The few times I’ve played this in class, it has an equally exhilarating effect on the dancers, and that’s why it’s on the CD.

Footnote: ‘Herr Still,’  a conductor once said to me with a puzzled sideways smirk as  he conducted me through waved his hands dismissively (like a customs controller who doesn’t want to see the contents of your bag) through  the finale of Paquita in a dress rehearsal one day, ‘You play this music as if you enjoy it. Why?!!’
‘Because it’s my job’, I said under my breath, but the irony would have
been lost on him.  It’s strange but true that ‘serious’ musicians think
that playing popular music in a slapdash, bored way will reflect badly
on the composer, rather than on them. Minkus and his ilk has had this
treatment from most academics and critics for a long time (by
coincidence,  Chris Hampson’s blog entry for today touches on this very point).

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist