Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Ultimate Warhorse

In his capacity as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas has played a major role in cultivating and reinforcing my proposition that we listen to music, particularly "live" performances, in order to become better listeners. Last night at Davies Symphony Hall he reminded us that this proposition is as applicable to those compositions we think we know best as it is to any work we have not previously heard. I do not know if more analytic ink has been spilled over Ludwig van Beethoven's third ("Eroica") symphony than over any other Beethoven composition (or, for that matter, any composition in the history of music); but that work is at least a viable contender for that position (corrected after originally typing "honor," probably through my own reaction to "academic" thinking about music). Having already written about the problem that any pianist faces in approaching the performance of Frédéric Chopin in a culture saturated with recordings of that music, particularly those by Arthur Rubinstein, it goes without saying that conductors face the same problem with the canon of the nine Beethoven symphonies; and, yes, I do mean "saturated" in the sense of a "listening mind" that is so sated with experiences that it barely has room for any more. Thomas therefore set himself a formidable challenge, particularly in coupling this symphony with a work as radically different in just about every way as William Schuman's violin concerto.

The thing about the "Eroica" is that it is so big. It's not just that the scale of the work was so ground-breaking for its time. It's that there is something awe-inspiring just about that scale itself, perhaps in a way best captured by Carl Sandburg:

Dear God, he's big,
big like stupendous is big,
heavy and elephantine and funny,
immense and slow and easy.

There is something about the text of the "Eroica" that brings all of those adjectives into play, along with a host of others. Now, as a Mahler conductor, Thomas obviously has no problem with "big;" but, as I recently pointed out when he was conducting Franz Schubert's "Great" C Major symphony, that "problem with 'big'" resides more with the endurance of the orchestra that with the scale of the conductor's conception of the performance. The conductor has to decide which are going to be those moments that register most strongly on the listeners in the audience and then have the discipline to hold back on all the other moments that, from a theoretical point of view, are equally worthy of claiming audience attention. This may be less important in a recording studio, where those moments can be isolated from the overall context; but it is crucial in a "live" performance.

Sir Georg Solti was one of the few conductors to talk explicitly about this challenge. He did it in the context of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold, which runs around two-and-one-half hours without any intermission. For Solti the most crucial moment of the opera comes with the entry of the Gods into Valhalla at the very end; and the danger is that, by that time, the orchestra will be too "played out" to approach the music with the full force that Wagner had conceived for it. (The singers at least get to rest during the scenes in which they do not appear.) In a similar way Thomas seems to have chosen the variation in the final movement of the "Eroica" in which the full force of the orchestra is invoked to deliver an augmented statement of the theme with all the intimidating grandeur that tweaked Sandburg's poetic imagination. Even with pauses between the movements, so much happens in the fourth movement that the conductor must always worry about that "Solti effect;" and Thomas kept things so well controlled that there was no doubt that, in this particular conception of the piece, this was the moment that epitomized his conception of the entire symphony. Indeed, given how much time elapses before this movement even begins, it was fascinating to see the restraint that Thomas exercised in order to afford this movement pride of place, particularly when one realizes that this movement, on its own, runs through that gamut of Sandburg adjectives.

Within this broader architectural conception, it appeared that the other "movement of priority" resided in the second ("Marcia funebre") movement. This was no surprise, at least for me. Given Thomas' command of Mahler's conception of funeral marches, I should have expected that it would carry over to Beethoven's own symphonic approach (as opposed to the one he took in his Opus 26 piano sonata). The difficulty here is that so much happens in the first movement, whose scale accounts for so much of the overall scale of the entire symphony, that the second movement runs the risk of becoming a "breather" for the orchestra, losing its funereal impact. Thomas solved this by taking Beethoven at his word, emphasizing the "brio" of the "Allegro con brio" first movement, letting all the events of that movement unfold at a brisk pace that did not dwell on any of them the way those academics do in analyzing what makes this particular score so "revolutionary." Thus, while Beethoven's funeral march is never as angst-ridden as anything by Mahler, it carries much of the dramatic weight of the symphony, if not the implication that a hero is only remembered as "heroic" after his death, since, as Napoleon apparently demonstrated to Beethoven, in life he is too capable of undermining his own image. Then, to prepare the audience for the "primary position" of the final movement, Thomas brought back the "brio" for a quiet "vivace" approach to the scherzo movement, broadened out only by the horn passages in the trio.

All this would be a tough act to follow, which is why it was only sensible that it be preceded by a performance of Schuman's violin concerto featuring soloist Gil Shaham. Like many I was first informed about the music of Schuman by performing "Chester" in my high school band. This was useful information to the extent that the deconstruction of thematic material into unevenly spaced staccato punches is as much the substance of the violin concerto as it was of "Chester," which, having been composed in 1956, finds itself situated between the first (1947) and second (1959) "versions" of the concerto. The critical difference in the concerto is found in the lengthy solo violin passages that weave their way in a steady pulse of eight beats in and around the uneven orchestral pulses. This, by the way (to draw upon another of my favorite themes) is the essence of what John Dewey meant by "rhythm," which resides not in an evenly predictable pattern but in an unpredictability that mediates the known recollections of the past with the unknown anticipations of the future. (Leonard Meyer and Eugene Narmour would later develop a general theory of music around this in terms of what they called "expectations" and "realizations.")

Another "signature element" of the concerto is its rich orchestral texture, significantly reinforced by elaborate composition for the battery. This is "the fun part." It may lack the theoretical intricacies of the structure of the "Eroica" (or any of the other Beethoven symphonies, for that matter); but Schuman's music speaks with the same clear-but-brash American voice that we had experienced earlier this season in Samuel Barber's piano concerto and his "concert drama," "Andromache's Farewell." I would also venture to guess that much of the brashness in both of these composers stems from their having the good fortune of a music education free of the Europeanizing influence of Nadia Boulanger, whose list of students is practically a time capsule of twentieth-century music composition but who seemed to have little tolerance for the musical equivalent of Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp."

On the other hand, where barbaric yawps are concerned, Thomas and Shaham made for a well-matched pair. Shaham jumped into the almost unrelenting drive of his solo work feet first and, for the duration of the concerto, looked like he was having one hell of a ball. Meanwhile, having already taken us into the respective turfs of not only Barber but also Charles Ives (whose music, ironically, had been coupled with Mendelssohn's violin concerto), Thomas had accustomed us all to the listening talents required for barbaric yawping. This was thus a concert in which the two halves complemented each other, a coupling of twentieth-century American brashness with a nineteenth-century Viennese venture out to the threshold of what would later be called romanticism. What more could we ask for in learning to be better listeners?

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