When you listen to Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's 1954 Festive Overture you can't help but be overwhelmed by its sense of joy. From the triumphal fanfare and the unmistakable sound of brass-in-thirds, to the dramatic flourish of the timpani, to the spritely run of the clarinets and flutes, the celebratory mood of this piece is unmistakable. The official story of its composition concerns the Bolshoi Theatre, who put in a last minute ask of the composer to come up with a commemerative piece for the 37th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The deadline was just three days away. But Boston Philharmonic Director Benjamin Zander believes there's another undercurrent pushing this music along: the death of Stalin.

"One day in 1953, Stalin died," explained Zander at his Cambridge home. "And so [Shostakovich] he took his pen, and in three days he wrote the most joyful, festive, exuberant, excited, magnificent overture."

Like many artists, Shostakovich lived in constant fear during the Stalinist regime. Purges were not out of the ordinary, and the composer supposedly kept a packed suitcase by the door — in case he were to be picked up by the KGB in the middle of the night, he didn't want the commotion to wake his wife and children. So, although the sentiment wasn’t explicit, for Zander, "it's clear to me that this is a celebration of freedom, of the relief and the exuberance and the joy that he felt when Stalin finally left... Shostakovich poured all his irony and his sarcasm and his anger and also his love into his music. And that's what makes his music so powerful and so beautiful. And it's always a protest."

The "Festive Overture" is the first piece on the Boston Philharmonic Youth's Orchestra'supcoming program, originally scheduled as a concert for a now-canceled Russian tour (amid the tensions and violence of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the orchestra, which plans one trip abroad every year, is now headed to Greece). Their conductor argues preparing and communicating with music on an international stage is formative for any musican, but particularly young ones.

“For a young orchestra, they open up their souls and their emotional pores in a way that they are unlikely to do in the environment of home and school,” he said. “So it's a liberating experience and it's an unforgettable experience. I meet people 20 years after they have been in this orchestra, the previous one, and they tell me that the tour was the thing, that that was the thing that changed their lives, and they'll never forget it.”

Now framed as a benefit concert for the most vulnerable children of Ukraine, the orchestra will still present the program it had prepared for the original Russian visit: a trio of compositions by Russian artists. As it turns out, the pieces they chose have significant resonance with Russo-Ukrainian history, and provide context for the conflict unfolding today.

The parallel between Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin then, and oppressed civilians and activists and President Vladimir Putin now, is fairly clear. Joining the composer-dissident on the youth orchestra’s bill are works by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsk and Sergei Prokofiev, two composers who had their own fraught relations with their homeland.

Prokofiev's third piano concerto is a showstopper of a piece presented in three movements and, in this concert, featuring the Georgian pianist Alexander Korsantia. "It's a huge virtuosic athletic event, just the sheer number of notes that he has to play," said Zander. "But it's also deeply feeling and very elegant and has that Prokofiev like elegant classical style."

Alexander Korsanti, pianist
Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

As you listen to the pianist’s interactions with the orchestra, it's worth it to consider the arbitrary nature of borders and how we consider distinctions between nations and states. Prokofiev is someone you could call a Russian composer — he was born in the Russian empire, after all, and after living abroad in San Francisco and Chicago and Paris, eventually settled in the Soviet Union. But, as Zander points out, "Most people don't know that he was born in Ukraine, brought up in Ukraine, and he had a very complex relationship with Russia."

By coincidence, Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin. The state funeral for the dictator (and the proximity of Prokofiev's home to Red Square) made it nearly impossible to pull off a funeral service for the composer, and his death went relatively unnoticed and uncelebrated. His funeral was poorly attended; only a handful of people showed up, including Shostakovich.

Rounding out the program is Tchaikovsky's achingly beautiful (and emotionally manipulative) Symphony No. 6, dubbed the "Pathétique." Tchaikovsky was of Ukrainian descent, and born in Tsarist Russia, "but it turns out he spent a good deal of his life in Ukraine, and he taught at the University of Kiev," noted Zander. In his opinion, Tchaikovsky's final symphony is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and he believes it's very appropriate that at this time, when we're all experiencing such deep feelings of sadness and loss and anger, that we should play a piece that really reaches to the depths of our souls. And there's nothing more powerful than this symphony."

Over the course of its four movements, "Pathétique" sails over the depths of your emotions, leaving you depleted in its silent conclusion. Its most fascinating moment comes at the end of the third movement, marked "allegro molto vivace" (very lively and fast). Appreciating the full impact of that moment requires an understanding of two conventions of so-called classical music. The first is that symphonies, typically, are composed in four movements. However, it's not unheard of to get one in three (Mozart's "Prague," Sibelius No. 3, Stravinsky's aptly named "Symphony in three movements"). The second convention is far more arbitrary, and arguably elitist: applause is held until the completion of the piece.

But with Tchaikovsky No. 6, something incredible happens. The third movement is so lively and victorious that you wouldn't be wrong to think it's the conclusion of the work. I've seen it before — the audience erupts into applause at the final flourish and satisfying cadence. But the conductor doesn't lower their baton, and the musicians don't put down their instruments. Instead, a brief pause, and the welling sobs of the final movement, marked “Adagio lamentoso” (slowly, sadly). It's a powerful emotional turn, profound in its lamentation.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky , 1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky , 1893
A;fred Fedecki Wikimedia Commons

Zander explains that Tchaiikovsky intended a story behind this piece, but never explained what that story was, but doesn't doubt the composer was experiencing a deep pain during composition. “The thing about Tchaikovsky is that it was not possible at that time for somebody to live as a homosexual in society,” he explained. “He was forced by social pressure to get married, which was a catastrophe for him. And, after, he threw himself in the river, tried to drown. So he was constantly escaping from the trauma of not being able to be himself. There are some people who are convinced that he committed suicide under pressure from the society.”

Tchaikovsky died in 1893, shortly after the premiere of his final symphony. Whether hisdeath was accidental is a question we cannot definitively answer. But Zander has “no doubt that he was at the deepest point of despair at that moment.”

It might seem discordant to close on such a sad note, or strange for a youth orchestra composed of 12 to 21-year-olds to bear such an emotional burden. Zander, however, who lived through the Second World War, thinks it wholly appropriate. "They're responding to a situation as gloomy and as frightening as any that any of us have experienced since the War," he opined. “In certain moments, I might say in a rehearsal, 'just think of what it's like to be in those towns in Ukraine that are being bombed and being destroyed,' and then we play the Tchaikovsky and you could feel the intensity grow in their playing. I mean, it's really thrilling to hear them play that music."

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra Benefit Concert for Children in Ukraine is Friday, May 6, at 8 p.m. atSymphony Hall. A hundred percent of the gross proceeds from ticket sales will support the Bright Kids Charity’s No Child Forgotten Fund which assists some of Ukraine's most vulnerable children suffering from Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.