Sunday, January 20, 2008

Symphonic Division of Labor

When Donald Francis Tovey wrote the entry on "Music" for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he floated the hypothesis that the history of music could be examined in terms of the efforts of composers to sustain listeners' attention over longer and longer periods of time. Tovey was probably not aware of Anton Webern's reversal of this trend, although the article does cite Paul Hindemith, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams and includes a rather dismissive paragraph about jazz. I have always felt this hypothesis bears considering for both its examples and counterexamples, and I think it provides an excellent lens through which to examine much of the late work of Franz Schubert. After all, for all of his reputation as a master of the small scale of the art song, his last years yielded works of symphonic proportion in unexpected settings, such as the piano sonata (particularly G major (D. 894) and B flat major (D. 960)), piano trio (E flat major (D. 929)), and the C major string quintet (D. 956). These were all experiments in extending the time scale of his compositions; but I use the word "experiments" because, for all the virtues of these pieces, they have their problems.

I first became aware of such problems when I was turning pages for Edward Auer at a performance of the D. 929 trio. Before the performance he sat down with me to review the cuts he had made in the final movement. My academic training had taught me that all cuts were sacrilegious; but Auer was a pragmatist who believe that there was only so much flat-out repetition that one could expect an audience to endure. With my own training having now receded further into the past, I am willing to admit that he had a point (regardless of any feeling I may have about Philip Glass).

When we move from the limited resources of a solo instrument or chamber ensemble to the full strength of a symphony orchestra, as is the case with the D. 944 "Great" C major symphony, however, there are different ways to be pragmatic. Schubert must have been aware of the ways in which the Mannheim school had cultivated innovative approaches to realizing a crescendo, just as his predecessors Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were; and, as a result, while there are extended passages of near-maddening repetition in the "Great," they are usually there to fuel the increasing strength of an extended crescendo, in the tradition of the "Mannheim Roller." This poses a major challenge to performing this symphony, particularly in its final movement, where Schubert applies the "Mannheim Roller" to an effect far more extended than that of the Mannheim days. If one cuts the passage, the crescendo loses its impact; if one does not cut, there is a real problem of the performers getting exhausted by the repetitions and the weakening of their ability to sustain the crescendo and deliver its final impact.

Last night I heard Michael Tilson Thomas approach this problem with an innovative solution that I have never previously heard. Rather than cut the excessive repetitions, he divided them among his musicians. If a passage was played twice, it was played by the second-chair performers at each stand in the string section the first time and then by the first-chair performers the second (or vice versa). This provided an interesting strategy for making sure that all the performers were properly managing their energy. In terms of the overall crescendos, the strategy seems to have worked very well. It also provided an interesting perspective for those of us close enough to the stage to see it: the idea of a back-and-forth trade-off, almost like a call-and-response, that was take place at each stand. Even if uniformity of sound across the entire section is an ideal of symphonic performance, one could detect at least a hint of two colors in slight contrast, which, through their alternation, made the shape of the overall crescendo all the more interesting.

I was sufficiently blown away by this effect that, on the way out of Davies Symphony Hall, I seized the opportunity to ask one of the first violinists whether or not this was, indeed, a new thing. He told me that he had never played the symphony this way before and that he, at least, liked they way it worked. You could certainly see that all of the string players seemed to be enjoying themselves, rather than laboring under the sort of strain one usually expects from a Marine Drill Sergeant. Now, to be fair, I am not sure how much of this was all in my head. In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman wrote only about the "brisk, blazing finish" of the final movement, without saying anything about what made it blaze. However, I prefer to think of this experience as a demonstration that every performance should be approached in terms of problems that need to be solved and that even the old problems can admit of new solutions.

A similar strategy was also demonstrated at the beginning of last night's concert, which was a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's second orchestral suite (BWV 1067). This suite is almost more like a concerto due to its focus on a solo flute; but Thomas took this one step further, turning it into a sort of "Brandenburg Concerto," by assigning some of the string parts to first-desk-first-chair soloists. While the string section was radically reduced for this performance, this idea of engaging the flute soloists in "conversation" with other soloists, usually in the second iteration of a section of a binary-form movement, was highly effective. It also struck me as a good strategy for dealing with modern instruments, since the problem of balancing sound with such instruments is different than it would be with period instruments, just by virtue of the acoustic properties of those instruments. Of course the spotlight was on Acting Principal Flutist Tim Day, but for me what made this performance work was the way in which it came off as an extended conversation among all of the performers, as opposed to a dialog between soloists and accompanists.

The bulk of the Chronicle review focused on "À l'Île de Gorée," by Iannis Xenakis, a work composed in 1986 for amplified harpsichord and chamber ensemble. Thomas felt a need to preface the performance with some remarks that dwelled on Xenakis' training in mathematics and the impact of that training on a highly formalized approach to composition. This is the usual way that Xenakis is introduced to those unfamiliar with his work, but I think it is necessary to put his formalizations into perspective. Between 1955 and 1968 he wrote many essays about the "stochastic" approach he was taking to composition and even the use of the computer as a tool for pursuing this approach. These essays were translated into English and collected in the Indiana University Press book, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. As the "token mathematician" in a seminar on post-WWII composition that I attended at the University of Pennsylvania, I had to prepare material about these essays. Alas, Xenakis was not big on writing skills (I checked out the original French for some of the essays) and his tendency towards a rather heavy-handed polemic tended to obscure the fact that the content of his essays ran the gamut from the naive to the embarrassing.

The good news, however, is that, once Xenakis got all of his theoretical ranting out of his system, he become more focused on composing music, rather than translating theory into music notation. I always felt that the best example of his break with his own theories was his Oresteïa, which translated Aeschylus into opera. There is nothing I would like more than an opportunity to see this opera. Just listening to the Salabert/Actuels CD left me with a more gut-wrenching sense of this particular Greek drama than any staging I have ever seen. According to my notes this large-scale work was first performed a year after "À l'Île de Gorée" was composed.

However, while this latter work is, to some extent, intended as a programmatic commentary on the slave trade (Gorea being the island off the coast of Senegal from which slave ships departed), the programmatic nature is far less transparent than that of Oresteïa. Thus, when faced with the inevitable how-did-you-like-it question at intermission, I could only fall back on an answer I have used before, "I really do not know, but do know that I would really like to hear it again." I was certainly impressed with Elisabeth Chojnacka's skills at negotiating an obviously complex harpsichord part; but, since the piece was written for her, I was more impressed at the rapport that she maintained with Thomas and the Symphony musicians he was conducting. I have to believe that her acknowledgement of the chamber ensemble while taking her bows was sincere. Any other impressions I have of this music, however, can only be a reflection of Harold Bloom's "agony of influence." I felt I was in some middle ground where many of the harpsichord gestures invoked memories of Francis Poulenc's Concert Champêtre, while there was an unmistakable flavor of Stravinsky (particularly his piano concertos) in the sonorities of the accompanying chamber ensemble. I know that there is more to this music than those superficial impression; but I shall need more listening opportunities to get at that "more!"

This, of course, gets at one of the most important functions that live performances can serve. Yes, it is always good to hear the familiar in a new light (to mix metaphors). However, it is also good to be exposed to the totally unfamiliar. "À l'Île de Gorée" provided Thomas with the opportunity to expose us to a new kind of unfamiliarity, so to speak; and I was delighted to be there for his doing it.

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