Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Paul Hersh Brings an Expressive and Cerebral All-Beethoven Recital to SFCM

Last night in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), pianist and violist Paul Hersh presented what amounted to a “final report” of a project he undertook during the fall term with three graduate students, violinists Kevin Matson and Shelby Yamin and cellist Evan Khan. The “surface structure” of this undertaking involved preparing performances of three chamber music compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven with consecutive opus numbers. As was observed when this concert was announced on this site, opus numbers are a highly unreliable guide to Beethoven’s chronology.

However, the project was not so much an evolutionary perspective on Beethoven’s efforts as a composer as it was an exercise in teasing out the expressive elements that distinguished these pieces in the Beethoven canon. Nevertheless, Hersh always introduces works on his program with remarks; and it was clear that the pursuit of this project entailed considerable cerebral effort. On the basis of those remarks, one can assume that much of that effort went into the nature of time itself.

Indeed, Hersh had much to say about the significant distinction between subjective time and “clock time.” However, he seems to have overlooked a temporal element that may have been the most significant attribute that all three works had in common. The one time Hersh identified this element specifically was at the beginning of the program, the Opus 95 string quartet (“Serioso”) in F minor in which he played viola with the three graduate students. The coda of the final movement shifts from F minor to F major for a rapid flood of eighth notes at a breakneck Allegro pace, keeping the dynamics as soft as possible until a few forte punctuations arise towards the conclusion, culminating in a surging crescendo in the last three measures. This idea of an almost disruptive “dash to the finish line” also concluded the other two works on the program, the Opus 96 violin sonata in G major and the Opus 97 (“Archduke”) piano trio in B-flat major. (This same device would later show up in one of Beethoven’s most popular works, the Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor, with its wild Prestissimo coda to the final movement.)

While Hersh did not dwell on this particular aspect of Beethoven’s subjective approach to time, he had much to say about subjectivity in general, particularly pertaining to the sense of prolongation or of time standing still. What made this discussion interesting was that, by virtue of framing his points in many of his own experiences, Hersh offered up valuable insights into the performer’s sense of time. This tweaked several of my own personal nerves, since it was the first time it occurred to me that the listener’s sense of time need not align with that of the performer’s. Thus, Hersh’s anecdotes about time standing still had more to do with moments or episodes that seemed to take forever, while the listener’s experience often arises from a combination of what has gone into the score pages and how the performer(s) choose(s) to interpret those pages.

From the listener’s point of view, the best example last night of time slowing down, if not coming to a full stop, could be found in Opus 97 in the Andante cantabile ma però con moto. This is an early example of Beethoven composing variations on a theme whose duration decidedly exceeds the “length specifications” encountered in the eighteenth century. One might almost say that the variations do not emerge from a “theme” as much as from an episode that is traversed multiple times, each of them involving a different context. When that episode unfolds at a slow pace, as is the case in Opus 97, the listener often has to go do great deliberative effort to orient himself/herself around a defining pulse. One might almost say that, while the variations composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were poetic, in this movement of Opus 97 Beethoven was experimenting with prose. This means that the listener’s very sense of the passing of time has been, to some extent, undermined, thus encouraging the illusion that the very flow of time has been suspended.

In his discussion of Opus 96, Hersh also dwelled on the need to find significance in every note on the page. He observed how when, in the first movement, Beethoven returned to his opening thematic gesture, he added a passing tone to what had originally been a wider interval. This gave Hersh the opportunity for a brief riff on the distinction between sign and symbol based on his reading of Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key. Langer’s thoughts on this matter basically came out of her exposure to Charles Morris’ Signs, Language and Behavior, which, in turn, had been inspired by the pioneering writings on semiotics by Charles Sanders Peirce. All of those thinkers put considerable effort into the problem of how we make sense of what I casually like to refer to as “marks on paper;” and, since those score pages are based on their own systematic lexicon of marks on paper, it is understandable that all of us, from time to time, find ourselves barking up the semiotic tree. Indeed, some of the most committed barks have come from Jean-Jacques Nattiez, author of a book whose English translation by Carolyn Abbate is entitled Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music.

Nevertheless, here, too, problematic issues of time rear their heads. The problem is that those marks on paper are static, while making music must, of necessity, be dynamic. (Just to be clear about this, basic physics tells us that making any sound is dynamic. Sound does not exist in any immediate instance of time, a point that continued to haunt Edmund Husserl in his own efforts to grasp the nature of time-consciousness. Martin Heidegger did not manage much better in this regard.) In other words making sense of marks on paper may be prerequisite to making music; but, unlike those marks, making music involves actions that progress through the flow of time itself. Mind may carry the burden of the sensemaking; but the music arises through what James V. Wertsch called “mind as action” (a phrase he used as the title of a book he published in 1998).

Thus, almost all of Hersh’s commentary comes back to the tight coupling of the actions of making music to the very consciousness of time itself. It is through that consciousness that we are aware of succession and simultaneity, of evenly-spaced pulses and the grouping of those pulses to expose rhythmic patterns, and of the extent to which any act of performance entails a metaphorical journey. The marks on paper may denote the beginning and ending of that journey; but in the mind of the attentive listener, that journey only “exists” through its process of unfolding in the immediate present. This is what makes the act of listening so satisfying, the fact that, because it is an act, it always reveals its own unique identify every time it occurs.

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