Friday, August 24, 2007

Ironic Piety

It turns out that the reason the announcement for the "Bon Voyage" concert by the San Francisco Symphony last night did not include information about the soloist is that the soprano who will be singing the final scene from Richard Strauss' Salome in Europe was not performing with them last night. As I shall elaborate, this did not in any way diminish the quality of the evening here. The program was still the same one I had previously cited, and there is a lot to say about it.

My choice of title is intended to reflect a question that often arises when I face a program like this one: How seriously should I be taking the whole affair? There was a lot of overt spectacle in the program, but much of that spectacle had an ironic edge to it. I would like to explore that edge in terms of the two symphonies on the program and then extend the exploration to the rest of the program.

It is hard to imagine two symphonists less alike than Charles Ives and Dmitri Shostakovich. As I have previously argued, if we want to find a kindred spirit for Ives, we would do better to look backwards to Brahms than forwards to twentieth-century Soviet Russia. Nevertheless, at least on the surface, both symphonies on the program (Ives' third and Shostakovich's fifth) may be viewed through the lens of a pious acknowledgement of authority. In Ives' case the authority is sacred in the form of the nineteenth century religious camp meetings. For Shostakovich, whose symphony was labeled by an "ideologically correct" (but anonymous) reviewer as "a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism," the authority was secular. Nevertheless, it is not that all far-fetched to group together God and Stalin, at least in terms of stories about how they respectively exercised their authority, in which case it is also not far-fetched to ask whether composers as creative as Ives and Shostakovich where actually submitting to authority or invoking irony in ways that would elude the perceptions of more superficial listeners.

I can only speculate about how serious Ives was about his religion; but this was a man who could treat the burial of the family dog ("Slow March: Inscribed to the Children's Faithful Friend") with all the solemnity associated with a proper Christian burial, complete with an unadorned citation of the "Dead March" from Handel's Saul. My guess is that Ives had a child's perception of religion, always capable of seeing through the overly serious and just as always on the lookout for opportunities for fun. We thus have one of the richest collections of Sunday School hymns as can be found in any of Ives' works, all of which are deconstructed and patched together in oddly appealing configurations. When a tune emerges long enough to be recognized, the emergence is blatant, as with the trombone booming out with the longest stretch of "Fountain Filled with Blood" we ever get to hear.

Does all this amount to that "ironic edge;" or is it just exuberant celebration? For me the answer resides in the final movement, where the most central hymn is concealed to an extent where it can barely be recognized. What is the tune that is so scrupulously concealed? The text is "Just As I Am, Without One Plea." Is Ives asking us to accept him, as the composer of this statement, "just as he is" while, at the same time, concealing just who he is? I have no idea; but, sitting there listen to Michael Tilson Thomas bring out all the intricacies of this complex score in ways that a recording can never capture, I found myself thinking for the first time about all those subtexts that could be lurking behind all that was familiar in Ives' scores.

It is this idea of the need for a subtext that connects Shostakovich to Ives. After all, Shostakovich got himself on Stalin's bad side with Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. Whatever Ives may have believed about the wrath of God, Shostakovich had plenty of "hard evidence" that the wrath of Stalin could be far worse. At least on the surface, his situation was far more desperate than that of any Christian penitent; and his fifth symphony may be seen as a desperate plea for Stalin's mercy and forgiveness. If the propagandistic press can be taken as the yardstick of success, then this symphony did the trick for poor Shostakovich; but was it really a "reply to just criticism?" Now that we are at a safe distance in time, it is hard to imagine that Stalin was ever capable of "just criticism" of music; and Shostakovich must have known this. However, he also knew that he could never let on that he knew it; and I doubt if we shall ever be able to tease out of the historical record what Shostakovich really thought. His very soul was too fried by the prospect of terrible persecution to ever make a directly honest statement.

So can we "listen for subtexts" in this symphony? My personal feeling is that this is the only way we can approach it. So much of it is rendered in such broad brush strokes and in such bite-sized gestures that we have to believe that this was a meal cooked strictly for Stalin's satisfied consumption. This is not to say that the craft is missing, but it is still a craft of manipulation. Thus, the middle section of the first movement comes off more as an effort to "pep things up" (because the serious side has gone on long enough) than the sort of turn-on-a-dime mood swing that comes from suddenly wondering if there is a knife at your back. Then the final movement bursts forth in a sustained acceleration that is less growing celebration and more running faster and faster without being sure who or what is pursuing you. The conclusion is, of course, as celebratory as Stalin could have wanted it to be; but we can still hear the celebration with an awareness of the assassins who have been assigned seats in the stadium. So it is that I feel Shostakovich could not have seen this work through to its conclusion without being sustained by the efforts of scrupulously concealing an ironic subtext.

Between these two "pillars of irony," the program offered the final scene from Salome sung by soprano Lise Lindstrom. At the very least this is a case where the libretto has to be read at more than a surface level. Oscar Wilde wrote it in French (at least some sign of concealment), leaving the translation into English to Lord Alfred Douglas. My own feeling is that Wilde had set himself the ideological task of demonstrating that the proper aesthetic veneer could make even the most offensive pornography palatable. Given what literature has produced since his time, the text now seems far tamer; but we can still appreciate how far over the top Wilde wanted to take it. This brings us to Strauss. Wilde could derive wit from the practices of excess, particularly his own; but you have to wonder whether or not Strauss realized that wit was at the heart of it all. This is a case where the music is very much a surface reading of the text, but what a reading it is! So much is piled on to the few paragraphs of this scene that coordinating all of the instrumental voices against the soprano's delivery is as daunting a task as juggling all the hymn fragments in Ives (and, in this particular case, the orchestra resources for Strauss are so much larger). Meanwhile, Lindstrom opted for a minimum amount of dramatization, mostly around presenting Salome as totally unhinged with the consequences of getting her way with Jochanaan. The only weakness came at the end when, on the stage, Salome is killed by the soldiers. Lindstrom just stood erect with outstretched arms, looking a bit like Joan of Arc at the stake (whoops! that's Honegger!).

This brings me back to the very beginning of the concert, John Adams' "Short Ride on a Fast Machine." Like many, I came to know this work through the San Francisco Symphony recording, where it was released as one of Two Fanfares for Orchestra. Even this is a case in which subtext may have come into play. After all, between Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and Leo Arnaud's "Olympic Theme," our sense of fanfare has been enculturated almost to the point of triviality. Therefore, there has to be some irony in the fact that this fanfare (for the 1986 Great Woods Festival) was conceived from a sense of raw self-indulgence, best captured in Adams' own words: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?" Nevertheless, as audience we have the luxury of seeing the fun in both the up-side and the down-side of such an experience; and, since Thomas conducted the work at its premiere, this was very much a horse's-mouth performance (for which the horse got to take a bow, too)! Not all irony has to cut to the bone.

As I mentioned previously, this was basically the program that the Symphony will be performing at the BBC Proms concert on September 1. This is a rather peculiar social setting, particularly if one chooses to "promenade" on the floor; and I have to wonder if such "promenading" is good for the kind of reflection that irony usually provokes. So the experience in London is likely to be quite different from the more formal setting of Davies Symphony Hall, although I have to wonder if the person in the balcony who seems to have been "moved by the Spirit" to give off a joyous hoot before the final notes of the Ives symphony had even sounded might have been preparing for a Proms experience!

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