I'm often struck, when I attend concerts, with how much it matters what we see happening onstage. Ears aren't everything. And sometimes they are not enough. This is doubly true if an audience is presented with the sort of modern music which trades in humor, sly remarks, and attitude, like the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, which received its San Francisco premiere this week nearly fifty years after it was composed. I'm happy to report the concerto was a triumph worth the wait, but its success with our audience was to a large degree determined by the mini-skit taking place onstage. Fortunately, Christian Reif and Johannes Moser are natural comedians, sufficiently so to dispel any notions that Germans are too uptight to be funny! And our close sight lines in Davies Hall, where it is easy to witness a performer's face, surely played a part in what almost amounted to a Saturday Night Live routine.
I have been on something of a musical diet this season, and the concerts I have attended have been few, including piano recitals, which have proven nonetheless wide in range, with newcomers to the city as well as the quintessential New Yorker, Richard Goode, and the continuation of Angela Hewitt’s transcendent Bach Odyssey, which has been the lodestar of my musical life for some years now. All have had something memorable to offer, especially Ms. Hewitt, and I have very little to grumble about, unless it is the smartphone-addicted audience at Daniel Ciobanu’s recital, who seemed to have no idea of what a classical concert entails in terms of how to enjoy the music and how to allow others to enjoy it as well.
Not so long ago I read a note by a European string player who was a young student in the 1890s. He observed that gut strings were universal before the First World War. When they began to appear in the first decade of the twentieth century, they were considered functional but inferior, and mainly used by students. Wartime shortages then made them a regrettable necessity for working professionals and orchestras. I haven't had a chance to investigate this properly, but the source is unquestionable. Wind instruments constantly evolved and were "improved" over the course of the nineteenth century, with its genius for mechanical inventions. This gives us an idea of when and how this crucial divide separated modern musicians and audiences from the techniques and sounds of earlier composers—meaning Mahler, not Mozart. There is still some general idea in the mind of the public that historical instruments and performance practices concern primarily music of the Baroque and Classical periods, but musicians have been applying the fruits of performance history to Romantic music for over twenty years—with gratifying results.
Schoenberg in the opera often mentions Mahler, and we see his name projected on the back screen—a great Austrian Jewish composer who preceded Schoenberg in coming to America. Since James Levine’s day, the Boston Symphony has not given us Schoenberg (though Verklärte Nacht or the Five Pieces for Orchestra, or Gurrelieder might seem a good fit for Music Director Andris Nelsons). But the BSO does consistently perform Mahler, and in recent weeks gave us the huge, choral Second (Resurrection) Symphony and the tuneful and popular Fifth (whose Adagietto for strings is used so poignantly in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice).
If angels wore dark blue and carried music scores they could be the Soharmoniums. This all women’s chorus brightened the stage fifty-strong and filled the ears of the audience. A beautifully blended vocal group, it added to the pleasure to see them in uniform dress so that the eye was not distracted and all attention could be focused on their entirely delightful offerings.
“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country.
There's something a little otherworldly and disorienting about Salt Lake City, I'm tempted to say, especially if you aren't Mormon or familiar with the ways of the LDS Church. It's unusual to encounter a spotless downtown in any American city, of course, but you do wonder at times if Salt Lake is a Hollywood set designed to make one's own sense of human imperfection uncomfortable. Utah, in general, is almost too beautiful to be real—but the city is curiously empty—even in the Bermuda shorts weather of late October. Immensely wide, perfectly laid-out avenues are nearly people free. (The "don't walk" signs count down from 30). There are few homeless people visible, though sometimes they are the only citizens seemingly present, horizontal black marks visible on distant sidewalks.
The Dessoff’s core group of about forty singers was in great form, presenting a short work by Bach followed by William Shuman’s Carols of Death and then As Adam Early in the Morning, a world premiere by Douglas Geers as the first half of the program. The second half consisted of Messa di Requiem, composed in 1923, by Ildelbrando Pizzetti.