Saturday, June 21, 2008

New Sounds and Old

If there was a unifying theme to this week's San Francisco Symphony program at Davies Symphony Hall, it probably had less to do with any perceptual categories common to the offerings and more to do with the versatility of conductor Sakari Oramo, since he presented himself to us not only as a conductor but also as an orchestrator of Claude Debussy. When considered in the context of Debussy's consummate skill in writing for orchestra (and I happen to feel that Michael Tilson Thomas' interpretation of La Mer is one of his strong suits in the repertoire he has built up with the San Francisco Symphony), it is hard to view an orchestration of music by Debussy as anything other than an act of chutzpah. ("Dammit, if Debussy had wanted the voice to be accompanied by an orchestra, he would have written these songs that way!") Regular readers, of course, know that I have plumbed the depths of the semantics of chutzpah to the extent that I can admit positive, as well as negative, connotations; and I am willing to acknowledge that Oramo's intensions as an orchestrator involved the positive connotation. The performance, on the other hand, was another matter.

The problem is that, since these songs were performed by the conductor/orchestrator's wife, Anu Komsi, it is hard to escape the conjecture that this whole affair was a vanity project. Now vanity projects can turn out for the better as often as they turn out the other way. One of the most compelling performances of Arnold Schoenberg's "Erwartung" I ever heard took place at a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall when Christoph von Dohnányi was conducting his (then) wife, Anja Silja (whom I had recently seen singing Marie in the Metropolitan Opera production of Wozzeck). In this case, however, I am disappointed to report that Komsi is no Silja. The former may well be able to jump through more virtuosic hoops than the latter ever did, but she made it through those hoops with what must politely be called a neglect of the nuances of dynamic control. (Less politely, most of those jumps stood out like sore thumbs!)

If that were not enough, I could not help but feel that this particular Finnish diva was just not that all comfortable with the French language. This involved more than the usual trend of ignoring the consonants for the sake of getting the vowels right. It had more to do with the extent to which the poets being set by Debussy, such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, took the very sound of the text as seriously as Debussy took the sound of the music setting the text. To put it in more extreme terms, a poem delivered without a gut-level sense of the sound is no longer that poem; it is little more than an abstract exercise in performance. Thus, the failure of Komsi to do as much justice to the poets Debussy had selected as to his settings of those poets rendered the question of the effectiveness of Oramo's orchestrations little more than moot.

Fortunately, this "vanity project" was a relatively minor part of the evening, sandwiched between one of the major monuments of the past and a truly awesome West Coast premiere. The latter was "Seht die Sonne" by Magnus Lindberg, jointly commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic (who first performed it under Simon Rattle) and the San Francisco Symphony, leading me to believe that Thomas and Rattle may be able to get along, regardless of whatever "Mahler rivalry" they may have. That Mahler reference is more than incidental, by the way. Rattle's premiere of "Seht die Sonne" was coupled with Gustav Mahler's ninth symphony; so I suspect that it is not coincidence that the very opening motif of "Seht die Sonne" is the same motif that begins the Mahler ninth, even if the title of Lindberg's work is taken from one of the poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen that Schoenberg set in his Gurrelieder. Nor is it a coincidence that the orchestral resources of "Seht die Sonne" bump those of the Gurrelieder up to the next level (without including either solo or choral voices, mind you). Indeed, it would probably not be unfair to say that, in "Seht die Sonne," Lindberg has taken the very palette of sonority, which may well be the greatest virtue of the Gurrelieder, and extrapolate it to even greater orchestral resources.

From this point of view we would do well to consider two additional "sources of inspiration," one acknowledged by Thomas May's program notes and a second, unacknowledged but a corollary to the first. The acknowledged source is Pierre Boulez, particularly in the context of what Boulez learned about sonority from Olivier Messiaen. However, one cannot listen to the closely-knit passages of a large number of distinct wind voices cavorting through eccentric rhythmic patterns without thinking of all that Boulez had done, particularly with his Ensemble InterContemporain, to champion the compositions of Frank Zappa. Lord knows, Zappa's own groups, even the one he assembled for 200 Motels, could not cope with that particular aspect of Zappa's writing as well as the "Boulez band" could! Thus, Lindberg's escalation of orchestral resources applies as much to the Ensemble InterContemporain (particularly in the context of the demands that Zappa placed on them) as it does to the orchestration of the Gurrelieder.

The result, as one might imagine, is a mighty noise, never shy about its dissonances but always exhilarating. This made for a sharp contrast with the recent performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's recent Three Asteroids, which, from an arithmetical point of view, may have used greater resources than Lindberg did but ended up using them to lesser effect. If we were to seek out another composition for comparison, we would do better to look back to Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension," not just for the numbers of the resources but also for the ways those resources were put to textural (as well as melodic and harmonic) use. All this is basically to argue that there would be much to be gained from "Seht die Sonne" making a "return visit" in some season in the not-too-distant future. This work does not deserve to be put on the shelf after it has had its first innings. It may well shape how we hear music in this new century, and for that alone it needs to be heard more often.

Thus, to say that "Seht die Sonne" was capable of holding its own against its "complementary bookend," which was the seventh symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, is to say quite a lot. Scores whose ink is barely dry rarely deserve to be compared to those of a man who, as I have previously observed, tends to be more monument than master. However, if we try to get "beyond the monument," as I have done by trying to view Beethoven as the "omen" of John Cage and Philip Glass, the pairing of these two compositions is less intimidating, particularly since, for all of his other influences, Lindberg does not appear to owe any debts to either Cage or Glass! Nevertheless, that seventh symphony (which, as I recall, was Beethoven's first composition after losing all of his hearing) shows that same attentiveness to the rhetorical significance of both silence and ostinato, which I have observed, respectively, in Cage and Glass and which I continue to hear in all periods of Beethoven's life as a composer.

It was also apparent that Oramo appreciated that attentiveness. Indeed, his use of attaca transitions between the first two and last two movements were a sign that, one the larger scale, he wanted us to hear this as a two-movement composition in which the silences in those two movements were as important as the sounds. From that point of view, the silences we encounter in the seventh symphony prepare us for the even greater profundity of the silences Beethoven summoned in his ninth symphony. Beethoven's use of ostinato in the seventh symphony, on the other hand, has more to do with the obsessive persistence of specific rhythmic patterns, rather than with either the melodies behind those patterns or how those melodies are orchestrated. To a great extent the fundamental idea of a rhythmic pulse is scaled up to the level of a motif and becomes the primary driving force of each of the four movements (meaning that, if there is a two-movement scheme, then that force goes through a transition in each of the movements). Thus, one of the things that made Oramo's performance so interesting was the extent to which he conducted by this pulse, rather than "by the beat." (There was one passage in the Allegretto where his baton was barely moving, if it was moving at all.)

The result was a performance of Beethoven in the spirit of Thomas Stearns Eliot's Beethoven-inspired poetry. Oramo brought us to where many of us "started," when we were first getting to know the experience of hearing a symphony orchestra. However, when he brought us there, we came to know that "place for the first time;" and any conductor who understands how to do that has an understanding of Beethoven that transcends the mere document of a musical score!

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