Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Less a-Pekka

This past weekend I went down to Chicago for what promised to be an amazing concert: A new premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen, himself conducting, sandwiched between three stellar twentieth-century masterworks: the perennial La Mer, the underplayed Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and Stravinsky's often ignored Symphonies of Wind Instruments. But the Stravinsky was dropped, and Salonen never finished the piece, instead presenting a new-ish work from Arvo Pärt. All in all, a disappointment for me.

Pärt's symphony (his fourth) is the sort of generic, muddled work that just sort of sits there. Pärt has a knack for plaintive, contemplative music, but half an hour of this ruins the effect. The music moves in string gestures at a lugubrious tempo, all in unison, with a smattering of chiming bells and sharp little xylophone clusters and harps. It's gauze, but so much of it that it feels suffocating. There are some nice moments that evoke the sort of shimmering, swelling gestures of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis. And a lot of Pärt's earlier music has a nice mastery of texture and shape, the lucid clarity of his vocal writing, the pulsing energy of Tabula Rasa. But this work is one where less would be more, like Morton Feldman, or more would be more, like John Adams. Instead, it's in a sort of purgatory, waiting.

It doesn't help its case that it came after the Bartok, another work scored for strings and percussion, but one that's far more effective at utilizing the orchestration. Hearing it live (I think for the first time!), it really comes out how brilliant the orchestration is, from the folksy strumming in the last movement to the piano four-hand segments, and of course the frequent "night music" idea that Bartok returned to so often, with those eerie tipmani glissandos.

By the time La Mer arrived, the orchestrations seemed almost decadent, but it makes for such a fine pairing with the Bartok, since both are so imaginative, rhythmically playful, with the taut construction of Bartok balancing the freer form of the Debussy. And the performance Salonen delivered was near perfection: crisp, clean layers of rhythm, beautifully shaped phrases, and again that orchestration. I especially love the third movement, when everything drops out except that high violin and the low bass, a sudden expansive stasis amidst the swirl of everything else.

One final thought- another person remarked to me that he loved the Pärt because he could see himself wanting to listen to it on repeat. Giving it some thought, that's exactly my problem: it already feels like it's looping the same ideas and gestures. I can't listen to music like that. He listens to songs obssessively. I mean, one song heard hundreds of time within a month. I like mulitple listenings, but I need space around them, space to contemplate them, and I can't constrain my listening like that. Actually, I prefer rediscovering pieces. Unless they suck.


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