Friday, July 20, 2007

Whose "Don Juan?"

Having written yesterday at greater length than I anticipated about the San Francisco Symphony performance of the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto, I wanted to devote a second post to the performance of Richard Strauss' "Don Juan" on the first half of that same program. From many points of view, this piece may be the most challenging of Strauss' tone poems, beginning with the fact that the opening measures provide one of the major hoops through which any string player must jump when auditioning for a symphony orchestra chair. In spite of the fact that this is may be the shortest tone poem, I have had the misfortune to hear two major conductors (whom I would prefer to leave unnamed, along with the orchestras they were leading) bungle things somewhere along the course of the score. I suspect that the problem has less to do with the feet-first burst of energy that launches the work as with the high density of abrupt energy shifts that take place over the work's brief duration. The problem, then, is that neither performer nor listener is ever on "solid ground" for very long. The music never lingers in the moment (more applicable to Faust's contract with Mephisto, at least according to Goethe) but, instead, is always charging ahead to the next "conquest." This is a vision of the Don that occupied many of the authors of the Romantic movement, with its rebellion against Enlightenment thinking. The theme shows up in a variety of languages, including English (Byron), German (Hoffmann), and Danish (Kierkegaard). This obsession to drive forward incessantly is not halted by the fires of Hell, as conceived by Mozart and da Ponte, but by the sheer exhaustion of "all passion spent," without even the comfort of past reflection that Casanova enjoyed by writing his memoirs.

Thus, while we can all appreciate Gabriela Martinez' observation that the primary challenge in "taming" "Rocky 3" is endurance, this is just as true for "Don Juan." In the spirit of the Don's activities, endurance is not just a matter of length but with everything that happens "over the duration." Consequently, the same skill that James Gaffigan had in working with Martinez to establish a good "energy budget" for the extended scale of the Rachmaninoff concerto was applied equally effectively over the brevity of the Strauss tone poem. The result was that the Strauss performance was as impressively memorable as the Rachmaninoff; and, while the two works were radically different in so many ways, that level of quality performance was achieved in these two settings for basically the same reasons.

I also want to submit the disclaimer that the "vision of the Don" I presented above is primarily my own fabrication; and it is not easy to determine whether or not this was the "story" behind the Strauss tone poem. Strauss' source was an incomplete poem by Nicolaus Lenau, who is not known, at least in the United States, anywhere near as well as the three authors I cited. As a matter of fact, when I did a Google search on the phrase "Don Juan" and the name "Lenau," all of the first ten hits were from program notes for the Strauss tone poem. (We have Robert Schumann to thank for knowing that Lenau also did a version of Faust.) Wikipedia does have an entry for Lenau, but says little about Don Juan except for its fragmentary status. (Was Lenau thinking on the same scale as Byron?) Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry for Don Juan is a good example of what Andrew Keen calls "the cult of the amateur" at its worst. Not only is the Lenau fragment misrepresented as a play; but the accounts of both Hoffmann and Kierkegaard, however brief, leave much to be desired. We have to wonder if Strauss was drawn to Lenau through the motive of getting away from the shadow that Mozart had cast over the legend. If Strauss wanted to seek out "something completely different," he certainly succeeded, but in a way that is likely to drive performers crazy for many years to come!

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