Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. Therefore, it may seem ironic that a program celebrating and exploring his musical genius would focus on the works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. Yet Angel Gil-Ordonez, music director of the Georgetown University Orchestra, does exactly that with his student musicians in the program Shostakovich's Musical Roots.

Gil-Ordonez, who also serves as co-founder and music director of the PostClassical Ensemble (a professional group working in educational partnership with the university's performing arts program), has assembled a concert based on the music that most influenced Shostakovich's professional career -- that of the romantic composers.

The fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and the second, third and fourth movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. open and close the concert.

"Beethoven was a very big influence on Shostakovich's life, and Tchaikovsky as well," Gil-Ordonez noted. "But it was Mussorgsky that represented the permanent sadness in Shostakovich. Most of his life was unhappy, and the last years were very difficult."

Georgetown University Orchestra: Shostakovich's Musical Roots
Where: 108 Davis Performing Arts Center, 3700 O St. NW
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Info: Free; 202-687-3838;

This was in large part because Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill health as a result of smoking and drinking, two addictions he preferred to leave alone. A diagnosis of polio in 1965 forced him to give up the piano. Later he suffered a pair of heart attacks and several falls that broke both of his legs. He died of lung cancer in 1975.

"In my opinion, I think this is why [Shostakovich] chose precisely [the] Mussorgsky 'Songs and Dances of Death' to orchestrate," Gil-Ordonez said. "People will learn how precisely he is represented through these songs."

In fact, "Songs and Dances of Death" is an appropriate highlight of the concert, as performed by the orchestra and sung beautifully by soprano Katherine Keem. For example, the first song, titled "Lullaby," depicts a mother cradling her very sick infant when Death appears to rock the baby to eternal rest. "Serenade," the second movement, sees Death as a lover, wooing a dying woman into joining him for all eternity.

A second component of the concert in general is that the Georgetown University Orchestra is made up of undergraduate and graduate students with majors in everything but orchestral music.

"They chose coming to Georgetown to keep up their passion for music," Gil-Ordonez said. "We have a fantastic group that are never going to be professionals, [but] they play at a superior level ... and love what they do."