Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vacant Podiums

This has been a bad year for conductors. Seiji Ozawa, recovering from oesophageal cancer, has been cancelling concert for more than a year. Ricardo Muti collapsed during a rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has been diagnosed with “extreme exhaustion as a result of prolonged physical stress.” Valery Gergiev is also suffering from exhaustion and has been cancelling performances. James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and, until last week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had to resign his position in Boston because of ill health. Claudio Abbado suffered from stomach cancer about a decade ago, and has been pretty much working as a part-time conductor the last few years. And André Previn is looking quite frail these days.

Are we witnessing a Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the age of the great conductors? Aren’t conductors known for living long fruitful lives? Or is this merely a period of changing of the guards, for a new generation of conductors to emerge?

Conducting is the most inexplicable and mysterious of all musical arts. Theoretically, conducting is nothing more than someone beating time so that all the musicians play together. One can teach the basic technique of conducting in about ten minutes – how to beat one, two, three, four and six. Some conductors look elegant on the podium, others look clumsy. Some conductors conduct with a clear beat, others make vague motions in the air. Somehow, the mere presence of a great conductor standing in front of an orchestra changes the sound dramatically.

Composer John Williams wrote that there are two types of conductors, “The first will offer less than what your ‘inner ear’ imagined the music to be, and the second will infuse the music with a beauty that is beyond what you have imagined.” Obviously the second group of conductors described by Williams is made up of only a small handful of true “Maestros”.

I once witnessed a performance of La Boheme at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted by a competent but decidedly second-rate Kapellmeister. The world class MET orchestra sounded, on that evening, very much likes a passable provincial orchestra. I have witnessed this also with our local symphony orchestra, which sounded a few notches better on evenings with a good guest conductor. So it is true that a great conductor can make a so-so orchestra sound like the Berlin Philharmonic, and a bad conductor can make the Berlin Philharmonic sound like the local high school orchestra.

Among the younger generation of conductors, the one who has been generating the most newsprint, or internet space, has to be Gustavo Dudamel, although it might be too early to tell whether the excitement will last. To my ears, the three most interesting of the younger generation of conductors are Kent Nagano, Myung-Whun Chung, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

I do feel sad that we seem to be witnessing the passing of a generation of great conductors. It appears that we will see many “job openings” in orchestras the world over, and that a frantic round of musical chairs will be played in orchestras around the world within the next few years. All we are waiting for are the right persons to come forward. I do hope that there will be many who will have the right combination of talent and charisma to step up to the podium. Although every generation has something new to offer, I cannot help but wonder whether the age of greatness, of a larger-than-life quality in conductors and conducting, is passing?

I sincerely hope that I am very wrong in this.

Patrick May

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Forbidden Music

Well, its official – the folksong Beautiful Jasmine Flower is now being blocked by China’s internet firewall. According to the latest issue of the Economist, Googling the folk song’s name would now only produce an error message. As ridiculous as this sounds, this is all part of the Chinese dictatorship’s efforts to suppress any stirring of a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution”.

Of course, throughout history, one sees dictators or dictatorships banning specific pieces of music, or certain types of music. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the music of Chopin was banned. The Nazis also forbade what they refer to as Entartete Musik, or degenerate music. This included music or the composers of such music who did not fit inside the Nazi’s political world view. Music by Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Gustav Mahler were all banished from German concert halls and opera houses. Music with Jewish or African characteristics, like the music of Ernst Krenek, was also banned, as was music by composers of modernist music, such as Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. The Nazi applied similar criteria to visual artists, and considered certain art works Entartete Kunst.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin hated Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, wrote an article in Pravda stating his views, and hounded the composer for many years. Shostakovich only later redeemed himself in the eyes of the Party with his triumphant sounding fifth symphony. Throughout their lives, Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to walk the fine line between their creative impulses and not exceeding the aesthetic boundaries set by the Party. Shostakovich said that he always had a suitcase packed and ready, just in case he was going to be sent to the prison camp.

Back in China, all Western Classical music was banned during the Cultural Revolution, as being bourgeois. Even today, with the seemingly enormous numbers of musicians coming from China, the tradition of Classical music in China began actually relatively recently, and it will take many more generations before Classical music really become a part of people’s lives.

Any government that has to resort to controlling even art and music no longer has any legitimate claim to govern. The Nazis and the Soviets had come and gone, and the Chinese government is worried that their number may be up as well. It is indeed a sad state of affairs when a government has to worry about a syrupy little folksong inciting revolution.

I cannot help but wonder whether Puccini’s opera Turandot, which directly quotes Beautiful Jasmine Flower, is now banned in Chinese opera houses?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle

To sit in front of a great orchestra, under a great conductor, and experience the music making, is an indelible experience. When I was a teenager, I travelled with my family in one of those if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Rome tours to Europe. We landed in Lucerne, still one of my favourite cities in Europe, and I saw a poster advertising a concert with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, of which he was music director at the time. I managed to purchase what must have been one of the last tickets, found the hall, got to my seat, and waited in anticipation.

I live in a city with a good orchestra, but nothing prepared for the pure visceral sensation of experiencing the sound of the New York Philharmonic. The first notes of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture hit me like a tidal wave, and I sat breathless until the end of the piece. It was as if I was hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time in my life. The rest of the concert, with Wieniawski’s first violin concerto (with Sidney Harth) and Beethoven’s Erioca Symphony, was as much a revelation. I left the Lucerne Konzerthaus walking on air.

I had the good fortune to experience Maestro Mehta’s conducting one more time, this time in Vancouver, where he gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic – Bach’s third Brandenberg Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony.

Then, this past Saturday, February 26th, Mr. Mehta visited the west coast again, this time in Seattle, and gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic at Benaroya Hall. This concert was part of the Israel Philharmonic North American tour in celebration of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary and Mehta’s 50th anniversary conducting the orchestra. It is moving to see this orchestra, originally made up of musicians escaping Hitler’s Europe, takes its place among the world’s great orchestras. Mr. Mehta, who has devoted much of his professional life to this ensemble, certainly deserves a lot of the credit for the orchestra’s present standards.

After acknowledging the enthusiastic reception of the audience, Mr. Mehta opened the concert with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, a touchstone of the orchestral repertoire, and one of the composer’s four efforts in writing a suitable overture for his opera Fidelio. Mr. Mehta lets the music speak for itself, without overly exaggerating the music’s dramatic elements. Mr. Mehta is not a rigid-tempo conductor, and he does not hesitate to give the music a great deal of elasticity, or plasticity. Throughout the evening, it is apparent how the conductor allows the music to breathe, to expand, or tighten, all according to its natural flow.

Few conductors would dare to go on tour by programming the music of Anton Webern – not exactly a composer that tops the classical music charts. The orchestra performed Webern’s Op. 1 Passacaglia, music still steeped in the expressionstic, post-Wagnerian harmonic language. From his first concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, Mr. Mehta has been committed to performing music of the Second Viennese School. He gives an ardent and impassioned reading of this early Webern score, without forgetting to clarify the rather dense texture of the music.

Before the interval, the orchestra went on to play the composer’s 1928 Six Pieces for Orchestra. Written less than a year after the Passacaglia, this music falls squarely into the world of atonality. Perhaps this was Webern’s homage to his mentor and teacher, Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. In spite of their brevity, the composer fully exploited, in the best sense of the word, the resources of every instrumental group in the rather large orchestral forces, and the music is in many ways just as dramatic as the Mahler that follows. As in the Passacaglia, Mr. Mehta gave a splendid reading of the score, reminding us that there is much beauty in the music’s many dissonances.

After the intermission, the orchestra gave us Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in C-sharp minor. Mehta’s takes the opening Trauermarsch at a more brisk tempo than many other conductors. As the music progresses, I began to realize the logic behind Mehta’s choice of tempi, and his pacing of the music, from one section to the next, and into the Stürmisch bewegt movement, as it highlights the relationship between these two movements which make up the first part of the symphony. In the final measure of the first movement, Mehta is the only conductor I have heard to direct the violas, celli and basses to actually play the final pizzicato note pianissimo, as written by Mahler. Many conductors would ask for a very thick string tone for this final note, which is not called for in the score. In the second movement, I find especially Mehta’s handling of the brief appearance of the chorale (to be heard again in the fifth movement) intensely moving.

The massive scherzo, the centrepiece of the symphony, at 819 bars, is one of the longest of all Mahlerian scherzos, according to Henry-Louis de la Grange. The Mahler biographer and expert also points out that unlike other scherzos by Mahler, this one contains “no conscious element of parody or caricature”. As in the first part of the symphony, Mehta deftly negotiates through the extremely tricky transitions between the scherzo and the two trio sections, such that the music flows naturally and logically from one episode to the next.

The third part of the symphony begins with the justly famous Adagietto, a declaration of love from Mahler to his wife, Alma, according to conductor Willem Mengelberg. Both in atmosphere and in its thematic material, the movement is reminiscent of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The strings of the Israel Philharmonic did themselves proud here, playing with great beauty of sound and depth of feeling.

Mr. Mehta made the final pianissimo of the Adagietto so beautiful and drawn out that the French horn entry of the fifth movement took me completely by surprise, and the feeling was one of waking up from a beautiful reverie. Henry-Louis de la Grange writes that this final rondo, “with its absolute mastery of technical means and compositional procedures inspired by the classical tradition, but enriched by his inexhaustible musical imagination, marks a new high point in Mahler’s output.” Mr. Mehta’s handling of this large scale movement is no less masterful. Again, the tempo shifts from one section to the next was so well done that the flow of the music takes on a sense of inevitability until the end. Again, the soloists of the Israel Philharmonic play this music like virtuosi, and with great confidence. The magnificent trumpet chorale, hinted at in the second movement, never sounded more glorious as on this evening.

I feel privileged to have been a witness to this incredible artistic event. I will remember, and be thankful, for the beauty of the Beethoven, Webern and Mahler for a long time to come, and for this wonderful group of musicians for making it all possible.