Sunday, March 8, 2009

Musical Conversations-with-Self

Yesterday's exploration of the thesis that communicating with God is more like conversation-with-self than like an actual dialog provided me with an interesting entry point for last night's San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall. The Roman Catholic take on such conversations was represented by three centuries (early seventeenth, nineteenth, and twentieth), two nationalities (Italian and Hungarian), and two religions (Catholic and Jewish). Each perspective approached the relationship between man and God in its own characteristic way, which made for a wealth of diversity.

The evening began with Giovanni Gabrieli's motet "In ecclesiis," from the second volume of his Symphoniae sacrae, published in Venice in 1615, two years after his death. Gabrieli served on the musical staff of San Marco (as deputy to his uncle Andrea) and may be best known for the approaches he took to the spatial deployment of musicians throughout the space of this cathedral. Thus, in many respects, the cathedral became as much of an "instrument" as the performing instruments and voices. This particular motet was set for three mixed choruses, three trumpets, three trombones, and organ; and conductor Ragnar Bohlin had clearly given much thought to how these sources should be spatially arranged in Davies. He decided to keep the brass in their usual place at the back of the stage, place one of the choruses in front of the brass, and place a portative organ in front of that chorus. The other two choruses occupied the far left and right aisles of the floor of the audience area.

The result was moderately successful. Since I was seated off to the side and close to the stage, I had to contend with the problem of being too close to a few of the individual voices in the left-hand chorus. Nevertheless, for the most part I could appreciate the overall sense of balance without difficulty. The only real problem was Davies itself, since this music had clearly been conceived for a space with far livelier acoustics than those of a concert hall. (The very idea of a concert hall had not yet emerged in Gabrieli's time.) As I said, Gabrieli treated San Marco as an instrument unto itself, which meant that he composed for the sustained resonances and echoes that "came with the territory," so to speak. Large blocks of sound took priority over the intricacies of counterpoint; and details became secondary, if not tertiary. Thus, while Bohlin did well in honoring Gabrieli's sense of the spatial, his sense of architectural setting was, of necessity, abandoned. Thus, while "In ecclesiis" may have been conceived to set a context for prayer in a very specific religious space, the secular setting for this performance probably ended up missing the point behind its composition.

Nevertheless, the idea of details absorbed into large masses of sound clearly had an impact on the way in which György Ligeti set four excerpts from the text for the requiem mass between 1963 and 1965. This composition was intended for concert halls; and it is hard to imagine it ever having been performed in a Catholic church for a variety of reasons (including Ligeti's Judaism). Thus, in place of the acoustics afforded by a large cathedral, Ligeti drew upon the resources of a very large orchestra, two mixed choruses, and soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists. In spite of such density of resources, however, detail is far from secondary; and Ligeti even had the chutzpah to include a harpsichord, then setting it in such a way that it could hold its own.

Ligeti's composition was focused on the "Dies irae" sequence, whose dramatic depiction of the Last Judgment has inspired no end of orchestral excesses (not all of which involved setting the text). In the program book Thomas May quoted Ligeti as saying of this movement that "its wild and dramatic passages … allude to pictorial representations of the Last Judgment, particularly to Memling's altar-piece in Danzig, but also to the apocalyptic paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch, as well as Dürer's copperplate engravings." My own thoughts drifted further south to Michelangelo's fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's work is all the more frightening for the ways in which he captured expressions of raw human emotion when confronted with the prospect of eternal damnation; and, for all of his involvement with abstraction in the middle of the twentieth century (including "Aventures," which was sort of a "rehearsal studio" for his requiem setting), Ligeti's composition is intensely humane, even in the face of what May called "an outlandishly Rabelaisian sense of humor." Thus, while that humor may be consistent with Bosch's bizarre images, this is as much a setting for conversation-with-self over "last things" as Gabrieli's music was a setting for prayer in San Marco.

Finally, the evening concluded with Franz Liszt's tribute to the unofficial poet laureate of the Church Militant, Torquato Tasso, whose Gerusalemme liberata was a massive attempt to escalate the First Crusade to an epic of Homeric proportions. Tasso spent much of his life in an asylum and was only honored for his work shortly before his death by Pope Clement VIII. Tasso's tragic life, rather than his epic, is the subject of "Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo," the second of Liszt's thirteen symphonic poems. Liszt was apparently inspired to undertake this composition after having heard a gondolier's song while in Venice. The connection is unclear, since the primary setting for the period of Tasso's life that he chose to depict was Ferrara; but Liszt always had a way of reinterpreting things in ways that would best suit his needs (itself another take on conversation-with-self, the "self" in this case being "the rationalizer"). Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas introduced the work to the audience by casting it in the same extravagant mold as that of Freddie Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody." I suspect that the setting for "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World might have been more appropriate; and even better probably would have been We're Only in It for the Money, Frank Zappa's absurdist retaliation against the idea of escalating rock to epic proportions. Still, given Ligeti's own appreciation of the absurd, he probably would have appreciated being coupled with his Hungarian forebear Liszt in this manner.

He probably would also have appreciated sharing with Liszt the role of "bookends" on either side of a performance of Maurice Ravel's G major piano concerto. I recently read (and lost track of) a report of a concert in England that coupled Ravel's two piano concertos with George Gershwin's (one being the "Rhapsody in Blue"). The parallels are interesting: Gershwin completed the "Rhapsody" in 1924, followed by a full three-movement concerto in 1925. Similarly, Ravel began with his single-movement left-hand concerto in 1930, followed by the G major in 1931. Last night's performance with soloist Martha Argerich demonstrated just how keen a listener Ravel was when it came to Gershwin's music. Ravel's concerto is, on the one hand, an homage to Gershwin's jazzy rhetoric while, at the same time, a demonstration of his own command of the orchestral palette (which Gershwin never really had). The extent to which this concerto is sustained by its foundation in sonority probably provided the best justification for it sharing the program with sonorous composers such as Gabrieli and Ligeti. If Liszt had any presence in this concerto, it was through his piano virtuosity; but the piano was just about the only instrument that was silent in "Tasso!"

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