Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Concert Season Finale

So what does a midwestern boy do when he makes it to the big city? That's right. He gets himself some culture.

First, the Broadway sort. Failing to procure tickets to South Pacific and Gypsy, I lucked out getting the second to last available lottery ticket to In the Heights. Which I can, without qualification, say that I loved. This show and Spring Awakening have given me hope that the vernacular music of today can, in fact, be used to craft a dramatically satisfying show, rather than just try to capitalize on popularity and leave the show behind. The reviews have uniformly praised the star, who is phenomenal, and I think probably makes the show. But they've also hammered the book as airbrushed, comfortable, and unrealistic portrayal of life in Washington Heights. Perhaps. But when's the last time we demanded realism from Broadway? Oklahoma certainly didn't portray the grueling life of farming. And that's what I particularly like here. The music is modern, but the show itself is on par with the films of Frank Capra. Every Christmas I endure litanies of complaints whenever I seek company to watch It's a Wonderful Life. But the naysayers don't interfere with my loving every popcorn filled minute of it.

I also have been to two modern music concerts, and they offer some interesting points of discussion. In NYC, I went to hear the American Symphony Orchetsra perform a variety of seldom-heard works. Takemitsu's Cassiopeia and Panufnik's Sinfonia di sfere. Both of these offer examples of what I find lacking in a lot of more contemporary music, which is to say cohesion. The Takemitsu is one of his less engaging works, a litany of percussion against a orchestra that has little to do but noodle in the background. The Panufnik offered some nice dialogic exchanges between orchestral sections, but they stand out against a sea of nondescript orchestral writing. The Langgaard Music of the Spheres came closer, though it's overlong and strays a little too much into overly bland romanticism. But there's a freshness of sonority in some parts, echoes of Beethoven 6 in a watercolor, delicate and sweet and ethereal. The highlight were the Ligeti selections: Appartitions a spirited, brief was of fragmented ideas swirling around the stage, and the marvelously effective Atmosphères, diffuse and grand. I can't hear it without thinking of 2001.

The second concert was in Detroit: Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations and Messaien's Turangalila Symphony (I'll give you one guess what the draw was for me). Both were well-played, the Rachmaninoff slightly muddy to start, but warming to a rich, athletic performance. The Messaien kaleidoscopic, but always vivid and enchanting. But this concert failed in the more important sense. The audience steadily trickled out over the course of the Messaien (entirely older folks), and the first 12 people to stand at the end of the concert were probably under 35. What went wrong?

-This was a long concert. They gave extensive talky intros to the pieces, and we're already looking at a 75 minute work tacked on after a sizable piece and intermission. Maybe they were tired. The NYC concert, on the other hand, was an array of shorter works, more easily digested.

-There were no program notes. The NYC concert had extensive, fascinating, and quite explanative notes in a large booklet (easier to read).

-The on stage intro was thoroughly unhelpful. There was an extensive talk about Paganini before the Rhapsody, and several examples, which were nice but not necessary (especially given the long concert). The Messaien was preceeded by amusing tales of Messaien's synesthesia and religiosity, and a ten minute explanation/demonstration of the ondes martinot. Ten minutes? Really? Informative, yes. Helpful for understanding the piece? Well, maybe, but not on its own terms. And yes, the piece is about love, but when you say that to an audience, it does not prepare them for what's coming. The examples they played were brief melodic/harmonic fragments to point out the cyclical nature of the themes. Not a word about orchestral color, dance rhythms, or any of the lushness which is the primary appeal. Botstein in NYC wasn't the best speaker, but he had a sincerity, not to mention a knack for getting to the point about a piece.

-The pairing strikes me as bizarre, except that they're both exercises in contrast. The Messaien is equally complicated for the pianist, but less theatrically so. The Rachmaninoff is perfunctory whereas the Messaien is vast. Most bizarre of all, the endings. The Rachmaninoff ends with the orchestra working itself into a fury with the dies irae, only to shrug it off with a simple cadence at the end. The Messaien builds and builds, unleashing the full force in a shimmering F# major chord that makes Mahler look subtle by comparison.

I'm thrilled to experience this piece live, but I see why it's done so infrequently, because I can see the next board meeting. "You see? We tried to program something challenging. We even talked beforehand to help them into it, and they still walked out. Let's face it. People just don't want to hear this music."

This is why when I got an email asking about the concert, I decided not to fill out their form, and not to delete it, but to send them a letter thanking them for offering it, and expressing my concerns. I hope they stick around to listen.


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