Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Like a lion flayed alive:" Boulez, Barenboim and the VPO

Wallace Stevens' poem "The Great Figure" immediately came to mind when I saw the pieces on the program the Vienna Philharmonic played today at Carnegie Hall. Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Boulez's 5 orchestral pieces, Notations, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Here's that poem:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

I'm almost surprised we didn't see a red fire truck outside Carnegie Hall following the concert, because the musicians were on fire! I am still reeling from the sheer power of the music the Vienna Phil, under the inspired baton of Daniel Barenboim, brought to life this afternoon.

As I wrote in a post yesterday, the orchestra was presenting modernist works alongside romantic models that inspired them. In three consecutive programs Friday to Sunday (today), they played Schoenberg alongside Beethoven and Wagner, Schoenberg and Webern with Mahler, and today, the trilogy of 5ths by Schoenberg, Boulez, and Beethoven.

My undergrad mentor, "Daddy Dave" Watkins, used to chide the JMU Chorale when we hemmed and hawed over a piece we found too dissonant, unfamiliar, or just plain difficult. "You can't judge something until you know it. And friends, you don't know this piece yet!" Those words still ring in my ears, and I pass on that lesson whenever appropriate.

It is a necessary reminder where the music of the so-called "Second Viennese School" is concerned. Since the father of that school of atonality, Arnold Schoenberg, has been inextricably linked with every negative adjective associated with it, its time to wrest him and his cohorts from a protracted period of exile from the comfort zone of the standard repertoire.

Listening to the Vienna Philharmonic play these difficult, often severe--and just as often colorful, evocative, and engaging--works, I was struck by a couple of things. Yesterday I mentioned the debt film composers owe the old masters (from Wagner to Schoenberg & Stravinsky). As I listened to Webern's Six Pieces last night, I was reminded by the program annotator, Stephen Ledbetter, that Webern assigned programmatic titles to his intensely compact miniatures, as they exorcised the composer's grief following the death of his mother. One hears the haunting & gripping textures of the 2nd movement differently when reminded it evokes hearing "the tragic news of her death."

Though he withdrew the titles when he revised the works, their shadows linger, and the leap from the descriptive, suggestive music we come to expect in films is not so far to make. Schoenberg may or may not have had similar programmatic ideas in mind when he wrote his Piano Concerto for Stokowski and the NBC Symphony in 1942. Though the bru-ha-ha caused by the performance resulted in Stokowski losing his position with NBC, this work remains one of its composers most accessible. And though I hate to use that word--I overuse my favorite alternative, "immediately appealing"--it is the word to use when discussing these composers. Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez ARE accessible. And knowing where they came from and what they were up to helps make more sense of their complex, dense, dissonant, and yes, difficult scores. As the poet Rilke said, "you must hold to what is difficult." The lesson is as true in poetry and music as it is in life.

For Schoenberg, life was difficult, both in Nazi Germany and following his exile, in--of all places--Hollywood. The two works on Saturday night's program, the aforementioned Piano Concerto, and one of my favorites (really!), the Chamber Symphony No. 2, both come from his time in LA. Both works show their composer's debt to tradition--from the Viennese classical style of Mozart and Haydn (especially evident in the ebullient second half of the concerto) to the Romantic world of Brahms (the opening of the piano concerto). Both works unfold in one continuous movement, but have clear--and classically derived--subdivisions along the way. Both show their composer (at age 70), in full command of his gifts as an orchestrator and tone painter. For those unfamiliar with Schoenberg and his school (or interested in giving him another try), listening to the musical colors--the variety of sounds and textures created by the different sections--in the orchestra is as good an entry point as any.

Barenboim played the demanding piano role expertly, and the piece emerged as a series of almost improvised sounding dialogues--pithy & pointed at one moment, lyrical and probing elsewhere. The last movement opens with a short "riff" in the left hand--accompanied by percussion--that is not far away from the world of jazz and ragtime.

The second half of Saturday night's program was an orchestral showcase. Webern's music is THE study in musical compression--he quipped that every piece should be 12 notes and 12 notes only, as you should be able to say what you want with each note appearing just once! The 6 Pieces in their entirety last about 11 minutes. The third movement is just 11 bars long, and yet lacks nothing. I have been fascinated by Webern's music since I first encountered it, and in performances like last night's, I am reminded why I find this austere, acerbic, hyper-controlled music so powerful. Its compactness is directly related to its impact. Webern says in 2 minutes what it takes other composers 20 minutes to say. For someone long-winded like me, that's a good model to return to!

Except for the unwelcome sound of an obnoxious ring tone from an errant cell phone in the balcony just moments before the resigned close of Mahler's Adagio (from his unfinished 10th symphony), the finale of Saturday night's concert was awesome. Mahler has long been at the top of my list of favorite composers, and since each of his symphonies are concert-length themselves, he usually is the center of any program on which his music appears. That he was the coda to a fascinating program of modernists was revelatory. Boulez favors lean textures and balanced sonorities, and keeps any section in check who would err on the romantically indulgent side. His tempi tend to be on the quick side (and this trait has not mellowed much, even though he is in his 85th year). This made for a shorter Mahler Adagio than one might be accustomed to. The long-arching string lines had more forward motion than might be expected (they were a bit breezy for my taste) and no time was wasted in transitioning from one affect to the next.

As it came on the heels of the Webern, I was struck by the fact both composers assign an important voice to the viola--both the opening of Webern's 3rd movement and the opening of Mahler's Adagio begin with a viola solo. And not only do they begin with that voicing, but they begin with the same gesture--a rising (sighing or sobbing?) semitone (1/2 step).

It was a truly great program. I did not expect today's concert would top Saturday night's, and yet it did, and thus I suspect I will need more time for the cumulative effect of hearing so much dense music played so exceptionally to really digest and be absorbed by both my head and my heart.

The Vienna Philharmonic's mission "is to communicate the humanitarian message of music into the daily lives and consciousness of its listeners...The musicians endeavor to implement the motto with which Ludwig van Beethoven, whose symphonic works served as a catalyst for the creation of the orchestra, prefaced his Missa Solemnis: "From the heart, to the heart."

I just love that. And I loved the programs they offered this weekend. And the conductors leading them.

If Boulez's conducting is cool and clean, his music is anything but. And Barenboim must have sparks emanating from his fintertips, whether they're playing the keyboard or clutching a baton. The quote in the title is how Olivier Messiaen--the great French modernist, mystic, and teacher--described his pupil, Pierre Boulez. Of all the composers I've talked about the past couple days, Boulez would be my least favorite. After today, that has changed, and I shall be giving the 1/2 dozen discs of his music I own another listen.

Boulez's 5 orchestral pieces are re-workings of piano pieces called Notations. They are alternately serenely beautiful, evocative & exotic, and overwhelming in density and power. The easiest way to describe their style is to imagine what the child composer of Messiaen and Webern would sound like. Messiaen's exotic, Asian-influenced battery of percussion instruments & bird-call-evoking wind writing is coupled with Webern's compression and highly organized formal control, and the result is music that sounds a bit like both of these influences yet unlike any other.

And that brings me to a crux of these two concerts: how one reconciles the old and new, and how one performs ANY work of art--how one makes sense of it, how one interprets [performs/read/recreates] it. I think their is a Janus-faced approach to it all. That is to say, one view looks back in the direction from which the artist/work came, and one looks ahead to where the artist/work leads.

I can think of no better example than Beethoven. He was a product of the Viennese classical tradition epitomized by Haydn and Mozart. And he was a proto-romantic, revolutionary composer who influenced everyone from Schubert to Brahms to Verdi to Wagner (and everyone else who followed him in Western musical history).

If one looks backward to the tradition Beethoven inherited, one looks to "performance practice" and "stylistically informed" interpretations, whether one is using historic instruments with gut strings and smaller bows, and natural horns, etc. If one looks forward to Wagner and Mahler, the full-bodied, red-blooded romantic sound of the late 19th century and early 20th century is clearly the direction this music should go. More and more these days, the tendency is to look backwards with Beethoven, and "classicize" his revolutionary music, where interpretation and stylistic considerations are concerned, in the name of "authenticity."

Well, from the explosive ictus Barenboim delivered--before he'd completely turned around on the podium and before the applause that greeted his appearance had died down--this performance was going to be a roaring lion of its own. And I have never been so thrilled by a Beethoven symphony. The Vienna Phil played to the hilt--and the bass section made a strong case for why the weighty sound of the "old-school" German-style bow still works. I would have preferred a nod backwards to the 18th century for phrases in the 2nd movement. Especially where the part-writing recalls those suspensions and elegantly crafted counterpoint. The last two movements, however, left nothing to be desired. The strangeness of certain inner movements of Beethoven symphonies (here the scherzo) was in evidence, and Barenboim's reading ran the gamut of dynamic and expressive extremes. The transition to the finale was thrilling. I was so captivated by the barely audible timpani solo, I thought I was hearing this most familiar of symphonies for the first time. That transition--the ghostly echoes of c minor yielding to the unabashed exuberance of that C major theme that heralds the Finale--was so effective I spontaneously wept. The inexorable forward motion of Beethoven's fast movements--nowhere more powerful than here--makes such an impact. I had to contain myself from weeping and dancing for the sheer joy of this music, and I literally leapt to my feet and shouted "YEAH!" at the conclusion. I was glad 2,500 other music lovers shared my enthusiasm.

I wish my students AND colleagues could have been with me today. In the meantime, thank goodness there is so much more music to be made.

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