Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Alfred Brendel Lectures

On Friday, October 21st, I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by the distinguished pianist Alfred Brendel at the School of Music of the University of British Columbia. No stranger to concertgoers and music lovers, Alfred Brendel was of course one of the great pianists of the 20th century. What fewer people realize is that Brendel was and is a prolific writer of various musical topics as well as a poet. His two volumes of collected writings – Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out, make for stimulating reading for musicians and serious music lovers. Since his retirement from concertizing several years ago, the pianist has been travelling giving lectures on music as well as poetry readings. Vancouver was fortunate to have been one of Mr. Brendel’s stops in his lecture tour.

The subject of Alfred Brendel’s lecture, Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious, drew materials from two essays on the same subject the pianist previously wrote – The Sublime in Reverse and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

With a generous sampling of musical examples played by Mr. Brendel, he set out to show how composers, namely Haydn, in his piano compositions, injected their music with “a sort of innocent mischievousness,” to quote an early biographer of Haydn. In the case of Beethoven, Brendel quoted Friedrich Rochlitz, who wrote, “Once Beethoven is in the mood, rough, striking witticisms, odd notions, surprising and exciting juxtapositions and paradoxes occur to him in a steady flow.” The musical examples chosen by Brendel certainly served the purpose of proving the above points.

Mr. Brendel focused his lecture on three major works, Haydn’s C Major Sonata, Hob. XVI: 50, Beethoven’s G Major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, and the same composer’s monumental Diabelli Variations, a work usually treated by most performers with the utmost seriousness, revealing it to be a highly humorous work.

In the music of Joseph Haydn, Mr. Brendel discussed the composer’s “tricks” in his comic traits – breaches of convention, the appearance of ambiguity, proceedings that masquerades as something they are not, for instance, a deliberate show of ignorance of musical skill, veiled insults, and sheer nonsense. The great pianist also devoted much time in discussing humour in the works of Beethoven – the two hands that are unable to play together in the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 31, No. 1 Sonata, making fun of a prima donna’s coloratura embellishments in the second movement of the same piece, the “abuse” of fugal writing technique for burlesque purposes, and the “laughing theme” in his the final movement of his Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2.

Alfred Brendel’s discussion on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations reminds us of the humour that can be found in abundance in this work. I think pianists and music lovers either treat this piece as highly serious, almost like a holy relic, or extremely boring. A pianist friend said that he often falls asleep during performances of the Diabelli, and when he wakes up, the music is still being played. Perhaps it is not so much that the work itself is boring, but performances of this work that fails to bring out the humour and the joy in the music. Mr. Brendel certainly proved his point in the examples that he played for us.

The name of Mozart was not mentioned in Mr. Brendel’s lecture. He thinks that Haydn and Beethoven were predominantly instrumental composers, where sensual beauty of sound was not an innate quality. Mozart, and Schubert, had imaginations that were primarily vocal and, to quote Mr. Brendel, “singing, like sensuality, is hardly funny.” It is also more difficult to discover humour in the Romantic composers, because by the 19th century, music became “an entirely serious business.” Composers and performances in the Romantic era took themselves very seriously, and were expected “to function as heroes, dictators, poets, seducers, magicians, or helpless vessels of inspiration.” Schumann’s monumental Humoresque, great music as it is, is “capricious, lyrical, and unpredictable,” but not funny in the sense he discussed above. Mr. Brendel said that he was completely unable to find any sense of humour in the music of Chopin.

The pianist’s sense of humour and obvious enjoyment in sharing his musical thoughts were not lost on the audience, who responded fully with much laughter. Mr. Brendel is a man with a wonderful sense of humour, who enjoys the Far Side cartoons of Gary Larson, and who once said that his favourite hobby is “laughing.”

I, for one, was, and am, grateful for Alfred Brendel for coming to Vancouver and sharing his insights, his humour, and his obvious joy in music with us.

Monday, October 10, 2011

West Side Story - a Great OPERA

I cannot begin to tell you how much I love Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

It is easy to love the music of West Side Story, with all its memorable and catchy tunes – Maria, Tonight, America, to name just a few. Like any musical masterpieces, though, West Side Story is more than the sum of its parts. Looking through the music recently, I was reminded again how innovative the writing is from a compositional standpoint, not just melodically, but harmonically and rhythmically.

Some of the most interesting and innovative music in the score can be found in Bernstein’s writing for the orchestra, which also serves as a sort of Greek chorus to the drama. Because the tunes in West Side Story are so well known, we often overlook the music that serves as intermezzi between scenes, and as introductions to the many beautiful numbers. In the introduction to The Dance at the Gym, for instance, a seven-measure introduction with no key centre, finally settles harmonically, and gives way to a rather raunchy tune, marked “Rocky” in the score. It is also in the same scene that we first hear the famous melody to the song Maria, in the introduction to the graceful Cha-Cha, which precedes the dramatic meeting scene between Maria and Tony.

Bernstein was very interested in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and made a wonderful recording of the opera in his last years. In the justly famous Maria, Bernstein, like Wagner, introduces a chord that reappears often, a chord that is left unresolved. Unlike Wagner, Bernstein does not so much resolve the chord, but abruptly shifts the music from B Major to C Major (two completely unrelated keys) in the final three measures of the opera.

In the Tonight ensemble, Bernstein gives us a contrapuntal tour de force, merging the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters. It is one of the most exciting and innovative scenes in the opera where, like Mozart at the end of Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro where, in spite of the complexity of the music, every vocal line can be clearly heard.

Vancouver Opera is opening its 2011 season with a production of West Side Story, using a 30-piece orchestra. I think it is a mistake to perform West Side Story with a small orchestra. When Bernstein recorded West Side Story, he did so with a symphony orchestra, with a full complement of strings. Using an ensemble the size of a Broadway pit band trivializes the music, emphasizing only the “brassy” elements in the score, but taking away, almost completely, the lyricism that is such an important part of the score. 

Towards the end of his life, Leonard Bernstein was upset that people might only remember him as the composer of West Side Story. His fear was that people would overlook his “serious” compositions, and remember him merely as the composer of the famous tunes. Indeed, many critics, especially during Bernstein’s lifetime, have excoriated Bernstein as a composer of serious music, adding that his compositional talents should have been applied towards Broadway and not Carnegie Hall. Critics are almost always suspicious of works of art that are popular, as if popularity and greatness are mutually exclusive.

I think Bernstein should have been proud of being the composer of West Side Story. It is an American work, but it is also universal. It is music that is greater than any interpretation can bear, whether it is the local high school production, or one by the greatest opera companies with the most famous singers. And it is a towering, timeless, masterpiece, a great opera, just as loving and tender as La Boheme, just as brutal as anything Bartok wrote, and just as shattering as Tristan und Isolde