"And he was so cold he stuck an axe in his foot and didn't notice."
Just another snippet of conversation overheard in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night. There were certainly times during the second movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony (the Leningrad) that you could have stuck an axe in the head of some of the people sitting around me and I doubt they would have noticed much either.
Up until the conclusion of the first movement of that most stodgily socialist-realist of listening experiences, the mood had been one of exuberance, as the band on the dais that night was the 160-strong National Youth Orchestra and the first two pieces had been the notably zippy New Era Dance by Aaron Jay Kernis and Prokofiev's first piano concerto, a real favourite of mine. (Apparently those vigorous first four notes of the concerto were indeed later nicknamed po cherepoo: 'hit on the head')
At the start the conductor Mark Elder read from American composer Jay Kernis's own introduction to the New Era Dance, composed in 1992 as an evocation of the city of New York and "in anticipation of the new millennium to come in the year 2000, in hope for a time of imperative political and social change in this country." This drew some sniggers from the crowd.
The programme notes for the piece contained this classic line: "Please note: pistol shots will be fired during this performance." Looking to our own social issues, there weren't that many dark faces in this massive youth orchestra.
Shostakovich's dour 75-minute encomium to a city undone by enemies from both home and abroad took me back to the compulsory trip we made during our 1984 USSR tour to the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery outside Leningrad, where 420,000 civilian casualties of the 'Great Patriotic War' are buried. However po-faced Americans get about Pearl Harbour and 9-11, this solemn mass-crypt out in the suburbs of St Petersburg really does seem to be ground zero for an incomparable sense of historical anguish and affront.