Monday, November 12, 2007

"Sandwiching" the Heavy (Again)

Yesterday's first concert of the season by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Shwartz, provided several opportunities for reflection. The very structure of the program reminded me of last month's recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that featured performances by Menahem Pressler, since, again, the most serious part of the program, in this case Ernest Bloch's "Hebraic Rhapsody," "Schelomo," was sandwiched between two far wittier works, the second of which was Arnold Schoenberg's orchestration of a work that held a similar position on the Pressler program, the Opus 25 piano quartet by Johannes Brahms. Then, of course, Tessa Seymour, who played the cello solo in "Schelomo" also reflected back on the Conservatory, where I first heard her with her Luna Trio in a chamber music recital of the Preparatory Division last May. Finally, the structuring of the program around a "theme" reflected on the Hungarian "theme" of last week's chamber music recital at Kohl Mansion. That recital also concluded with the Brahms piano quartet, providing me with the opportunity to consider Schoenberg's effort only a week after a "live" performance of the original source material.

I try not to miss any opportunity to hear this Schoenberg orchestration. It is somewhat interesting to note that Schoenberg took on the task because the Brahms piano quartet was "seldom played" (from Schoenberg's letter to Alfred Frankenstein on March 18, 1939). Now the chamber version gets considerable attention, the orchestration tends to be neglected, and too many of the orchestral performances are the accompaniment of the ballet that George Balanchine created by a pit orchestra that does not do it justice. Nevertheless, since we do not tend to associate Schoenberg with wit (not that he lacked it), it is interesting to observe how he chose to recast a work in which, as I previously stated, the wit comes both "light and raucous." Ultimately Schoenberg triumphs with the raucous far better than he does with the light. Indeed, when Brahms goes really over the top with what I have called the "puffed-up parade" that practically "invades" the third "Andante con moto" movement, Schoenberg takes us into territory that might be better described as "Lisztich" and might therefore send Brahms spinning in his grave. The same may be said for the heavy use of a full panoply of percussion instruments for the final "Rondo alla Zingarese;" but this is also the same movement where Schoenberg finally uses his light touch to advantage, particularly in his rendering of the piano cadenza and the solo strings that follow.

Ultimately both versions succeed or fail on the basis of the level of spirit in performance. As I have previously written, Pressler has years of experience with that sense of spirit and has no trouble invoking it among whomever happens to be performing with him. Schwartz does not yet have such a track record, but he has established a level of rapport with his orchestra that allows for a controlled discipline that ultimately gets thrown off in favor of wild abandon. Furthermore, lest we had any doubts as to how much control there really was, Schwartz gave the audience an encore by picking up the final movement at that piano cadenza and charging forth once again into the accelerated coda with all the energy he had mustered the first time. Schoenberg could not have been presented in a better light.

On the serious side I think it is fair to begin by making it clear that Bloch is no Brahms. There is a heart-on-sleeve sentimentality to "Schelomo" that draws on all of the melodic motifs that we associate with the "Hebraic," whether we get them from Fiddler on the Roof or from the direct experience of the religious rituals themselves. Of course when the cerebral nature of serial music was all the rage in the twentieth century, compositions like "Schelomo" were dismissed as trivial; and Bloch was far from the only composer to suffer from such dismissal. In this country a similar attitude was aimed at Samuel Barber, meaning that it has only been recently that, as The New York Times recently observed, we have been able to listen to (and enjoy) an opera as "lyric" as his Vanessa. Similarly, we are now in a position to accept Bloch's lyricism for what it is, neither Brahms nor Schoenberg but still with a voice that should not be ignored.

Schelomo is, of course, the name for Solomon in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament; and that text probably provides us with more sides of this one character than of any other (with the possible exception of his father, David). The side that Bloch explored was that of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which gives us Solomon at the end of his most eventful life, now facing death in his most despairing mood. This brings us to the soloist, who is only fourteen years old and (probably) not Jewish. On the other hand when I first heard her she was half a year younger and was performing movements from the Opus 67 piano trio of Dmitri Shostakovich, which may well be the most successful effort to invoke the complexity of Jewish life by a non-Jewish composer. That performance, even though it only involved excerpts, was too scary for words; and, from my end of the time line, I simply could not believe that musicians that young could deliver a performance that was so effective. So I had no reason to be surprised that her performance of Bloch was as eloquent as it was; and, if Bloch had a tendency to smooth things over where Shostakovich left sharper edges, then she and Shwartz seemed to have the right agreement as to how to present Bloch on his own terms. My only question would be, to return to the "sandwich" thesis, whether she also has the ability to deliver wit, be it light or raucous. Martha Graham used to tell anyone who would listen that tragedy is far easier to do than comedy, which may have been her way of apologizing for how few comic dances she composed. Now that Seymour has led me twice into those "lower depths," she has left me curious as to how she would fare with Haydn or the final movement of Beethoven's Opus 11 trio.

In her capacity as soloist Seymour did not join the Orchestra for the performance of George Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," which preceded the Bloch. This was the other work of wit that made up the "sandwich" of the program. It was also the high point of fun for the program, and Shwartz threw himself into it with just the right level of spirit. If the balance was not always a clear as it could have been, the overall pace from start to finish could not be faulted. This was not just the opening of the concert but the opening of the series of concerts that this Orchestra would give. It would set the bar for expectations of what would follow. It should be clear from reading this that the bar is as high as it ever was, and the Gershwin performance set all the right expectations.

1 comment:

Stephen Smoliar said...

As an addendum to this review, I feel it necessary to report that one of my assumptions was incorrect. Through my personal network in the performing arts, I have learned from a reliable source, who would prefer to remain anonymous, that Tessa Seymour is, indeed, Jewish (and has a "passion" for Jewish music). Needless to say, I have no reason to question the level of this particular passion!