Sunday, June 29, 2008

Eastern European Wonders

I do not know if this was an accident of the timings of the individual works on the program or a deliberate act to prompt our approach to listening; but the program for the final "official" concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall (before the Summer in the City series gets under way) was presented in reverse chronological order. When I wrote about Johannes Brahms during the "Festival" series of concerts that Michael Tilson Thomas had arranged last month, I explored the extent to which Brahms had to contend with "the long shadow of the history of the music that preceded him, particularly that of Ludwig van Beethoven" and suggested that we needed to apply a listening strategy to Brahms that was "both retrospective and prospective at the same time." In many respects this week's program challenged us to apply that strategy on a broader geographical scale, which encompassed one recently deceased composer from Poland (Witold Lutosławski) and two from Czechoslovakia (Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák).

I am actually not sure it is fair to place these three composers in a common category. Beyond the boundaries of geography, Lutosławski is separated from the other two by not only the Second World War but also influences that are about as remote from the Czechs as one might imagine. Indeed, by Lutosławski's own account, his two primary sources of influence are, themselves, radically different: On the one hand there is the influence of the Second Viennese School, which grew out of Arnold Schoenberg and his two primary students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern; and this is the influence that usually comes to mind when we hear performances of Lutosławski's music. However, he was also influenced by Claude Debussy; and we became more aware of that influence in his final years of composition. In his notes in the program book for "Mi-Parti," the Lutosławski composition that began the Symphony program, Scott Foglesong wrote about these influences in terms of an opposition between technical logic (Schoenberg) and expressiveness (Debussy); and, while Foglesong never invokes the noun "dialectic," "Mi-Parti" may best be heard as a resolution of this opposition through synthesis.

Actually, my own first impression of "Mi-Parti" involves a composer whom Foglesong never mentions: Igor Stravinsky. From a rhetorical point of view, the first of this composition's three sections follows the familiar path of a gradual emergence of "signs of life" from some initial sparse gestures to the near-chaos of an entire ecosystem. Stravinsky broke the mold for this rhetorical strategy in the "Introduction" to his Rite of Spring. However, where Stravinsky's gestures were all melodic, Lutosławski distilled the "raw material" for his approach to this strategy to little more than basic sounds (or, as musique concrète pioneer, Pierre Schaeffer, called them, "sonorous objects"). In addition there is an aleatory element to the "ecosystem" that emerges, in which performers play rapid passages based on a pre-specified selection of notes but with the freedom to choose the order in which those notes are played.

The impact on the ear is nothing less than dazzling. While, even in Stravinsky, there is traditionally a sense of an integrated ensemble following a "direction" set by the conductor, Lutosławski's effect comes far closer to that sense of a "primal nature" than anything Stravinsky invoked. As in a rainforest, one is first struck only by how much activity there is; but, as the ears become acclimated to the environment, one begins to be able to extract specific activities from the overall texture. This is not always easy to achieve in a performance, particularly when dealing with an ensemble as large as the one Lutosławski has specified. However, visiting conductor David Robertson did an excellent job of find the right path between leading the Symphony when they needed to be led and allowing them "freedom of choice" when this was what the score required. The result was that, while it was clear that technical logic played an extremely strong role in the conception of this music, not to mention preparation for performance, it was the expressiveness that emerged "at the other end" for the benefit of those of us in the audience.

Janáček preceded Lutosławski by approximately half a century; but he, too, commanded a strong sense of music as a structuring of "sonorous objects." Within Janáček's frame of reference, however, this conception could be approached through the devices of orchestration. The down-side of such an approach is that the underlying "vocabulary" he invoked for melody, harmony, and counterpoint is relatively limited; so, without the narrative thread that runs through his operas, a full evening of his music might end up sounding a bit repetitious. However, any one of his works, taken on its own terms, usually turns out to be a real gem; and, indeed, each of the three movements of his Taras Bulba "rhapsody" (as he called it) is a gem unto itself.

For those unfamiliar with the novella by Nikolai Gogol (or, for that matter, the Yul Brynner movie) that provides the underlying narrative for this rhapsody, the story concerns a Cossack warrior (of the title) and his two sons, Ostap and Andrei. In the context of my argument that the opera Das Rheingold may best be understood as a story of three thefts, Janáček seemed to have regarded Gogol's novella as an account of three deaths (and I would share that point of view). Ultimately, it is the saga of a father who witnesses (and, in the case of Andrei, the younger son, brings about) the deaths of his two sons. (Ostap is executed by the Poles, and Taras finds himself witness.) Leading the Cossacks across Poland to avenge Ostap's death, Taras is ultimately taken prisoner and burned at the stake, but not before going out with one last defiant call to arms to his fellow Cossacks. Janáček's rhapsody depicts each of these deaths in the order in which they occur in Gogol's narrative.

The result is that each movement is, more than anything else, a character study. If his thematic vocabulary was limited, he compensated with rich orchestration and, particularly for Ostap, a keen sense of gesture, which, in many ways, provides a "transition point" between the use of melodic motif employed by so much of the music that had preceded Janáček and that more fundamental concept of "basic sound" that lay at the heart of Lutosławski's musical language. Thus, the order of the program may have served Janáček best of the three composers by providing the opportunity to hear his music both retrospectively and prospectively.

The evening concluded with Dvořák's Opus 104 cello concerto. Like Taras Bulba, this was a relatively late work; but it preceded the Janáček rhapsody by almost a quarter century. Dvořák only wrote three concertos, and this was the last of them. Furthermore, the level of expressiveness he achieved in writing for the cello tends to make this far more popular that the two preceding concertos for piano and violin, respectively. However, that expressiveness had already emerged in his chamber music; so it is no surprise that, towards the end of the concerto's final movement, the cello engages in a dialog with a violin (usually played by the concertmaster) which may have, itself, involved a retrospective view of his compositions for piano trio. Cello soloist Alisa Weilerstein had little trouble homing in on these expressive qualities and meeting the double challenge of holding her own against the entire orchestra while maintaining the intimacy of her brief "conversation" with Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman. (Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik had exercised his solo chops during Taras Bulba; so it was nice to see the way "division of labor" was applied to this program!)

Finally, it is interesting to note a somewhat shorter-range view of retrospection and prospection surrounding this concerto. According to the program notes, Dvořák began working on it on November 8, 1894; but his inspiration seems to have originated in the spring of that year. This was when he heard the principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera play his own second cello concerto in a concert (in Brooklyn, probably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). That cellist was Victor Herbert, barely remembered today and not for his symphonic music but for a string of operettas that became part of the early history of movies with music! Had it not been for Herbert, Dvořák might not have begun his project; and that makes for one great "sweet mystery of life!"

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