One of the joys with a visiting orchestra is to experience new sonorities—to be swept richly downward, perhaps, to unanticipated string depths—to hear brass playing grainier or more golden than you thought possible in the hall—or wind passages lighter and more personal than you might have dreamed. More importantly, you come to sense the ensemble’s psychology, as individual in its way as the conductor’s. Listen to an orchestra like the Mariinsky, and you experience shivers of delight. How Russian it seems!
Please forgive me if I think of Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello as religious dramas—a father must (or thinks he must) give a child over unwillingly to death—Abraham and Isaac all over again. It is not insignificant that Otello is old enough to be Desdemona’s father. Nor is it insignificant that there is a constant use of the word sacrifice in La Traviata, and no use of the word in Otello. Reading Garry Wills’ recent book Why Priests? has instructed me of the indelibility of the sacraments for old style Catholics. Once a priest, you are always a priest. Once married as a devout Catholic, you are always married. Thus Desdemona’s death was not considered a sacrifice by the Church since she had in fact given up nothing and had no penitential past. Desdemona is a Mary, a Jesus.
It was excellent to read Kenneth Cooper’s words recently on how he loved the sound of Bach with great players playing great instruments in a large hall. So do I, and this is what we got and have gotten for years now on New Year’s Day in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in the annual performances by the Berkshire Bach Ensemble. We seem to have arrived at a place between the modern instrument folks (usually using old instruments altered to achieve a stronger sound) and the early music crowd (which tries to emulate the sounds of the 18th century orchestra). Each has its own political correctness, and each works.
As one might expect from disciples of Kristin Linklater, the Conservatory actors at Shakespeare and Company gave us a vigorous and clear performance of this problematic work. Awash in Marlovian heroics, it comes close to farce with its constant switchbacks. I got a sense from these young actors that they had connected with the kind of voice it must have taken to get through a play like this at The Globe. It was a strong kind of speech, sometimes close to shouting, out of fashion these days, the influence of film being heavy in our theaters. It fit well with the ranting nature of the text and had enough energy to hide its weaknesses as well as support its strengths.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.
Here we are, a hundred years later, and so much of Claude Debussy’s music still beguiles with its freshness! As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through an accomplished performance of Jeux last Sunday, I was reminded how much the daily bread of sound in our own lives comes from Debussy’s late style.
I sadly missed most of San Francisco Opera’s very rich fall season, but I did catch two very interesting nights: I Capuletti ed i Montecchi on October 16, and the Adler Fellows Gala Concert on November 30.