Sunday, June 22, 2008

BON VOYAGE to the Youth!

I hope that conductor Benjamin Shwartz was not put off by my dwelling on the element of vulgarity (not to mention the reference to the Godzilla remake) in reviewing his performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Asteroids; but I had the feeling that the final concert of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra before embarking on their European tour tended to err on the side of tameness, particularly in the first half of the program. This is not to say that either the violin concerto of Jean Sibelius or the Dance Suite of Béla Bartók can be called vulgar (certainly not in the sense of The Miraculous Mandarin); but each of these works taps into the heart of its nationalistic roots by invoking some particularly raw qualities. The dances "behind" Bartók's suite are all based on indigenous sources, lacking any pretention of refinement (which is why "raw" is such an appropriate adjective); and Bartók is true to those sources, not only through the melodies he honors and the harmonies behind them but also through the sonorities evoked by his orchestration. In many ways this is a perfect piece for a youth orchestra, since it abounds with passages where one can "pull out all the stops" but which turn on a dime into more reflective moments. Unfortunately, what emerged from under Shwartz' baton was too much polite reflection and not enough raw spirit; and I have to wonder how such a performance will be received when they take it to the Czech Republic during their tour.
In the case of the Sibelius concerto, the raw element also has a lot to do with a performance style more appropriate to a folk setting than to a concert hall, even if the music itself does not draw on folk materials to the extent that Bartók did. Having had an opportunity to hear such folk music while attending a "cognitive musicology" conference in Finland, I can attest to the high intensity of energy that is applied to bowed string instruments for even the simplest of tunes; and energy is what matters most in the solo lines of Sibelius' concerto. Yes, many of those lines are long and elaborate (beginning with the very opening gesture); but they are not worked out with the inventive intricacy that we would find in Ludwig van Beethoven. There is also less of a sense of dialog between soloist and orchestra. Instead, the orchestra provides more of an aural landscape; and, consistent with the geography of Finland, that landscape challenges the ear with harsh features analogous to the harsh features of the land itself that confront the eye. So, again, raw spirit was the order of the day; and, again, Shwartz did little to deliver on that order. In this case, however, he may have been holding back because soloist Jennifer Koh too often seemed to be putting more energy into her "personal choreography" than into the sound of her performance. Ultimately, her appearance was a distraction from the music; and I suspect that, on more occasions than I noticed, her intonation and phrasing suffered from all that excessive movement.
Fortunately, things were on somewhat more solid ground after the intermission with scenes from Serge Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. The vulgar pretentions of the Capulets, the street fights, the "public merrymaking" (which featured three harlots in Kenneth MacMillan's choreography for The Royal Ballet), and the violent death of Tybalt (topped only by Lady Capulet's reaction) all came to life in the Youth Orchestra performance; but, at the same time, the sensitivity of the "Balcony Scene" was not neglected. If there was any problem, it was that the selection did not really follow the narrative flow of the ballet (or, for that matter, Shakespeare); but there is no doubting that Lady Capulet's grief makes for a grand finale, even if, in MacMillan's scenario, it is only the finale of the second act!
One interesting programming decision was Shwartz' decision to conclude the afternoon with an encore of the "Cuban Overture," by George Gershwin (preceded by an encore of the polonaise from Pyotr Tchaikovsky's opera, Eugene Onegin). Subscribers to the Youth Orchestra season (as well as any really dedicated readers) will recall that this is the work that began the season back in November. Presumably, it will be part of the repertoire for the tour; and well it should be. It is a work of spirit, wit, and wonderfully American sonorities (whatever its title may be). Indeed, were we to be bold enough to compare this performance with the one that the New York Philharmonic gave in North Korea, I might then be bold enough to confess a bias in favor of this American impression of Cuba over that more familiar American impression of Paris!

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