For The First Time Anywhere – Shostakovich’s Orango in Los Angeles

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

The first performance of the prologue to a hitherto-unknown unfinished Shostakovich opera, “Orango,” arrived at Walt Disney Concert Hall Dec. 2-4 – and it was everything I had hoped it would be.

“Orango” dates from 1932, when Shostakovich was still in prime satirical mode before the darkness of Pravda’s denunciation shrouded his life a few years later.  The prologue introduces the proposed opera much the way Berg’s “Lulu” begins – an “entertainer” leads spectators through various amusements before arriving upon the caged figure of Orango, half-man and half-ape, whose tumultuous story would have been told in the main body of the opera which, alas, doesn’t seem to exist.

The score – as orchestrated with relish, I would think, by Gerald McBurney – is full of blasting marches, jazzy cabaret touches a la the Jazz Suite No. 1, a machine-gun-like episode for drums, a can-can at maximum volume, funny noises from a trombone, a flexatone, a toy piano, and other disruptive influences – all bracketed by the Overture and Finale from “The Bolt,” which Shostakovich grafted onto the score in his hurry. On top of this, Peter Sellars unleashed a bare-bones production that actually amplified the antic, frantic spirit of the piece – coming at us with a video assault of images from Occupy Wall Street, Egypt and other totem poles of 2011-vintage protest.  For once with Sellars, you could suspend disbelief and not wonder what all of this had to do with the Soviet Union of 1932.  If there was a unifying theme,  “This is a meshuga world” will have to do.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who seems bent upon making every concert since becoming Conductor Laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic into a newsmaking event, conducted with energy, sass, and a real affinity for Shostakovich’s wacky side.  Fortunately, Deutsche Grammophon was there to take it down, along with the excellent performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 that followed – and hopefully, a double-CD set will let the world in on the fun (please, DG, don’t confine this important release to a download!).


In the meantime, if you can’t wait to get your hands on more Shostakovich from his flaming youth, check out the wonderfully acerbic, madcap score for the 1929 film “New Babylon” on a sparkling new Naxos double-CD set. Like many a film scorer in a rush, Shostakovich cribbed liberally from found material like the “Marseillaise,” Tchaikovsky and Offenbach. Unlike most film scores, this music maintains its fascination with or without the images (I recall a screening with a live pit band in San Francisco many years ago that worked very well).

This claims to be the world premiere recording of the complete score, but just barely – the main addition being a recently-discovered four-minute “original ending” that ventures into some mysterious dark territory before concluding on a properly resolved chord.  You can actually follow part of the manuscript on the back of the booklet if you’re willing to squint (the beginning of the scrapped ending is defaced with an X).  This also seems to be the first recording using a 14-piece band – Mark Fitz-Gerald leading the superb Basel Sinfonietta – that would have fit into the original cinema pit in St. Petersburg.  As such, and given the excellent sound and low price, Shostakovich fans needn’t wait.