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April 30, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – The Conductor

Having only a minimal interest in classical music (at best), I was wary of picking up Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor. It’s an historical novel which details the development and eventual performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, a performance hindered by its being produced and performed in Leningrad during the 1941-42 Nazi Siege of Leningrad.

This juxtaposition creates a perfect source of conflict that lingers throughout the novel. Quigley’s characters are almost exclusively involved in the music industry, and Quigley’s depiction of the craft of music is incredible, creating a true sense of every stage in the orchestral process, from Shostakovich’s obsessive composing to Eliasburg’s rather pedantic but dedicated role as the orchestra’s conductor.

This depiction of high culture is offset by incredibly visceral and gritty depictions of life in a besieged city—starvation, bombing runs and exposure are constant threats to every character in the novel. No one is ever comfortable or safe after the siege begins, a fact depicted as feeding into the production of the Symphony, a realistic (and historically accurate) account that emphasises the heroism and sacrifice that lead to the Symphony, and how important that symphony was to the people of Leningrad at the time.

The characters of The Conductor are so well-developed it is impossible not to be drawn in by them. The external conflict of Leningrad is mirrored in the internal conflict of the characters’ lives. Shostakovich is depicted as emotionally distant but inherently sympathetic, a man whose domestic life suffers for his near obsessive love of Leningrad, which he expresses via his music and by his service as a fire-watcher and ditch-digger. He makes the perfect contrast for Karl Eliasburg, the eponymous conductor, whose constant attempts to gain recognition for his ability are marred by his pedanticism, his lack of confidence or social grace, the domestic problems that plague his own house and his inferiority complex contrasted with the godlike Shostakovich. The ultimate effect is that Quigley’s story feels less like a historical period piece or drama, and more like a snapshot of real people responding to a horrible situation, using the medium of music to express and sustain themselves in times of terrible turmoil.

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