Just a few weeks ago, Israeli-born cellist Inbal Segev was giving a concert in Brooklyn of all six Bach Cello Suites, arguably a pinnacle of the cello repertoire, over two days. (That performance came only a few days after the news of her recording of said work made the first rounds of Grammy nominations.) Just the other day she was playing Beethoven with the Amerigo Trio (of which she’s a founding member) and now, fast forward in the repertoire nearly two centuries, Segev will be performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Jumping from genre to genre seems like it might induce a sort of musical whiplash, but Segev spoke of the challenge with relish. “From playing the Bach, which is soft, more vibrant, to the Shostakovich which has a cutting sound, almost ugly….and that’s ok! I’m kind of a chameleon, I try to play everything!” she said laughing.
And play everything she certainly seems to do. She’s recorded Bach, Beethoven, and Boccherini, and then commissioned works from Avner Dorman, Timo Andres, and Gity Razaz. Right after speaking about all of that, she went on about playing tangoes in South America, and it was clear how passionate and driven Segev is about the instrument she chose to play at age 5. “I always want to challenge myself, I want to find new things. Whatever is good, I want to play it!”
Choosing to play the Shostakovich with the ICO seemed like a perfect choice for Segev, for several reasons. “It’s scored for a smaller orchestra, and it’s been on my mind for quite a while, plus under my fingers. It’s a phenomenal concerto, and a core part of our repertoire. It might be considered modern for some people, but I really don’t think it’s in a way that scares people off.”
Composed in 1959, Shostakovich wrote his name all over the concerto…literally. He used a “DSCH” musical motif, comprised of the notes D, E flat, C and B. In German, those are written as D, Es, C, H, which stand for his initials. He used the motif (which goes through various musical metamorphoses) in several compositions, from symphonies to string quartets. The motif is also a close cousin of a theme in the 1948 film about the Nazi occupation of Russia, “The Young Guard”, to which Shostakovich wrote the score. Later on, in the 4th movement, Shostakovich uses a song enjoyed by Stalin, called Suliko, only he mangles it up a bit.
Shostakovich was (rightly) won't to do such things in his compositions. He had a difficult and tumultuous relationship with the communist government, and throughout his compositions he kind of gives the proverbial finger to what he was going through, and at who was putting him through it. “You can hear how difficult things were for him in Russia. You can actually hear his struggle. I think it’s very dark at times”, Segev noted.
She went on about preparing for such a work as well. “There is a difference when playing Shostakovich. I play bigger chunks at a time than say, the Bach, because it’s a different kind of stamina to play his works, it really is. I mean, there are things like getting that edgy sound. I really had retrain myself, coming from the Bach recently, to get my bow closer to the bridge, and get that biting sounds. And then there are the other expected challenges, like memorization, but it’s not just that. It’s a very different mindset altogether. And it’s not beautiful in a conventional sense of the word. I don’t think that would necessarily turn people away from it, however.”
If anything, Segev thinks it might get people to listen to more of Shostakovich. “His language is simply incredible. Everything he wrote...you really get what he’s expressing. I get a high from playing this type of music. I hope that others will get that similar high.”
The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra will also be performing Korngold’s Dance in the Old Style, and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2, under guest conductor Kelly Kuo. The performance is at 7:30 at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts, on the Butler University campus.
Before we hung up, I asked what she meant by “this type of music”, that she gets a “high from playing”.
I’m pretty sure I heard a knowing smile in her response. “Well…..if Bach is a prayer in the sky, then Shostakovich….is in your gut”.