Classical music is known to be influential and timeless. It’s lasted for hundreds of years and has changed the lives of millions of people of all ages. But what many people don’t know is that each piece has its own real-life significance, something much more profound than just what’s originally heard. In fact, I only discovered this recently at Yo-Yo Ma’s High School Open Rehearsal in the Boston Symphony Hall on October 12th. Open only to high school students, I and around 2,000 others had the privilege of watching the spectacular Ma perform both of Shostakovich’s Cello Concertos and the formidable orchestra play Haydn’s Symphony No. 22 and Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi’s “Zhiân.” And it was, to say the least, indescribably powerful.
But it wasn’t just Ma’s masterful bow strokes or emphatic plucking that drew me in. What was most interesting was the story told in each piece, and why it’s something that every teen needs to hear.
While there were multiple triumphant movements throughout the performance, they all contained long, sober sections, such as Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, more commonly known as “The Philosopher.” It acquired the nickname due to its peacefully archaic theme that evokes the image of a pondering philosopher, its fast-slow-fast-slow movement style serving as a fitting prelude to the next piece: Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.
This was also when Ma made his entrance, much to the delight of the roaring audience. Shostakovich’s Cello Concertos, he explained, were written to portray the anti-Semitic climate of violence and oppression under Stalin in the Soviet Union.
This couldn’t have been made more apparent in the first concerto’s four movements. From the first few measures to the last, my heart raced from the cello’s hauntingly beautiful notes. Ma’s emotional playing captured the essence of fear and distress so perfectly that I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat, almost feeling as though I was being chased. Even as I write this, I’m tense in my seat, reflecting on my hurriedly scribbled notes from the performance describing the raw fear the music exposed me to. I realized that, even now, 64 years after the piece was composed, listeners can still feel the desired impact of Shostakovich’s music: to educate us on global issues outside of our social bubble, in a way so deeply moving that we are forced to act. Much like how his music gave him a voice against injustice, classical pieces give us a first-person viewpoint of historical struggles that we too can use to find our own voices when facing modern conflicts.
But older pieces aren’t the only ones we can turn to when talking about contemporary issues. After all, modern problems require modern solutions. Iranian composer Iman Habibi understands this like no one else. His piece, titled “Zhiân,” is a portrayal of the Iranian protests following 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death, who was arrested by the religious police of Iran’s government for not fully covering her hair to government standards. According to NPR, eyewitnesses report that she had been brutally beaten by police and, three days following her arrest, died in Tehran. In response, the police claimed that she had merely died of a heart attack, sparking massive protests across Iran.
The 13-minute-long piece was nothing short of empowering. According to Habibi in a public interview before the event, his piece employs the whole orchestra to amplify the strong rhythm, which is based on the Iranian protest cries. Unprecedented shifts throughout it represent the social unrest of Iranian daily life, making the piece feel all the more real. What struck me the most was the dedication to young protestors, many my age, who challenged the Iranian regime. I could feel their sense of righteousness and justice through the music, and hear their defiant cries echoing off the walls. “Zhiân” translates to “life” in Kurdish, “formidable” in Persian, and is inspired by Mahsa’s Kurdish name “Zhina.”
As Habibi himself puts it, “The music carries us through darkness and light, but resolves in the end with a determination to continue striving towards a just, sustainable, and vibrant future.” Music, specifically classical music, serves not only to please the ears but more profoundly as a powerful educational tool that connects listeners on an emotional level. Hearing Ma and the orchestra play live not only evoked raw, potent emotions but also changed my understanding of global issues like government persecution and police brutality. Teenagers must be exposed to this, to recognize the many struggles millions face to this day, and learn how we can collectively grow and evolve to promote societal change
As we globally progress, accessibility for teens is becoming less of an issue. For example, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is offering a BSO High School Card that allows students to attend unlimited BSO performances (depending on availability) for a one-time payment of $15. To learn more, visit: BSO | BSO High School Card