Making Sense of Three Modern Classics

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Robert Motherwell, Monster (for Charles Ives), 1959.
Robert Motherwell, Monster (for Charles Ives), 1959.

Tanglewood Music Festival
Ozawa Hall, Monday July 23
The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
conducted by Stefan Asbury and Ken-David Masur

Charles Ives – Three Places in New England (Asbury)
Arnold Schoenberg – Piano Concerto op. 42, with Emanuel Ax, soloist (Masur)
Igor Stravinsky – Petrouchka (Asbury)

For a different view of this concert by Keith Kibler, click here.

For music to make sense, the performer has to be able to display its structure, discover its rhetorical gestures, and properly inflect its musical expression. The performer has to have the understanding, emotional sympathy, and musical ability to do all this. Two of the canonical twentieth century works on this program have offered serious challenges to both performers and audiences: are they arbitrarily constructed to shock and confuse us, or do they make sense? Despite the fact that they continue to raise such questions, both works have become relatively familiar in recent years, and are accepted as modern classics. lists sixteen recordings of the Ives and nine of the Schoenberg; they turn up regularly on orchestral programs. Have audiences gotten to the point where they truly understand these pieces as presented? Have they caught up with Ives and Schoenberg? I think the answer is “not quite.” These remain challenging works, and the extent of the performers’ comprehension remains the critical factor. How well did the TMC Orchestra do under its two conductors? Let’s take each work separately.

“Three Places in New England,” Ives’s best-known orchestral work, has enormous prestige: here we have the eminence gris of American composers, a “maverick” (to use Michael Tilson Thomas’s term from his March Festival in New York City) who has inspired everyone from Elliott Carter to John Cage to John Adams addressing American history, ideology, and landscape in an irresistible package. It is like a recipe whose ingredients make your mouth water when you read it. But how does the dish actually taste? Does prestige translate into love? For me, the standard against which performances should be measured is the recording Tilson Thomas made with the Boston Symphony in his recording debut 38 years ago. More than any other performance I have heard, the conductor understands how every tiny detail fits into the language of the piece. Contrary to accusations that Ives did not have full technical control over his scores, that he threw in extra notes to make his music sound more modern and prophetic than it really was, and that he lacked the experience of hearing professional performances of his music while still actively composing, this performance finds a saturation of meaning and poetry in each of the three sections; every detail expands and enhances the musical experience. There is no time or space for listeners’ thoughts to wander. This performance seems to fully justify the music’s prestige.

Measured against such a standard, the TMC performance was accomplished but a bit less than ideal. Maestro Asbury certainly knows the score, and he controlled the pacing and dynamics completely. His concept of the first “Place,” “St. Gaudens on the Boston Common,” was lyrical and poetic. But eventually the (relatively short) work seemed too long; the performance lacked the growth of tension necessary to show its narrative arc. This music portrays the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers of the Union Army, the famous “colored regiment” led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw memorialized in the relief sculpture on the Boston Common (as well as in the film Glory). They are marching on a virtual suicide mission through the coastal swamps of South Carolina to try and take Fort Wagner from its sea side. The sculpture and the music portray these figures as nobly heroic, willing to sacrifice themselves for the idealistic “cause,” i.e. for Emancipation and also to demonstrate the valor of which black soldiers are capable. We are to feel the exhaustion of the march as the men drag themselves in full uniform, fully loaded, through the sweltering, humid coastal landscape, propelled by a back-and-forth minor third heard continually in the low strings, pizzicato, which turns out to be a quote from Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe” to the words “I’m comin,’” as we eventually learn through its more recognizable continuation later on. The emotional weight of this structure/scenario failed to register in this performance, possibly because the string section being used was too large. This meant that the interior voices, including the winds and brass interjections, were dwarfed by the sustained material in the first violins, which ideally should be transparent and balanced with the other string sections, almost but not quite in the background. Our ears should swim inside the string sonority and clearly be able to pick out all the wonderful little details that seem to float by, pointed up subtly by the musicians. The single-point perspective of the dominating violins made the piece seem to drag on without sufficient variety; Ives’s multi-voiced textures take very delicate balancing to reveal the presence of all of its components.

The second movement, “Putnam’s Camp,” came off better, partly because there is no way to make a single voice dominate this score. The players thoroughly enjoyed the ragtime rhythms, the marching tunes, and the built-in “mistakes.” But the size of the string section still caused mischief. The wonderful (and humorous) brass and wind interjections came out sounding muscular and effortful, as if having to push aside a heavy curtain in order to be heard; fragmentary details got lost in the mix. Asbury did everything to encourage the rear sections of the orchestra to play out, and the result was an awesome cacophony at the climactic moments that I’m certain Ives would have thoroughly enjoyed; but once more, the clarity of the layering could have been better maintained if the strings were more transparent and the brasses did not need to push so hard. We might have even heard the woodwinds more clearly. For those who knew the score, it was a truly Ivesian imbroglio; for those who didn’t, it might have caused some headscratching.

The final movement, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” fared best: it is indeed dominated by a single, lyrically beautiful melodic line, initially presented by the wonderful solo cellist of the orchestra, then taken up by the full complement. The steady, one-way build-up was well paced. Also beautifully handled was the climactic almost-final “monster chord” that symbolizes the joining together of all souls in the oceanic consciousness symbolized by the Housatonic River’s merger with the sea; this powerful dissonance is cut off to reveal a sustained, previously inaudible sonority played by a chamber ensemble whose fragile persistence negates the finality of the “destination.”

Arnold Schoenberg.
Arnold Schoenberg. 

Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto of 1943 belongs to the composer’s final period, during which he found a full integration of his lifetime of musical invention with his lifetime of immersion in musical tradition. The notorious twelve-tone method, fully employed in this composition, is revealed here as capable of every expressive nuance from romantic lyricism to humor to expressions of grandeur, dramatic turbulence, along with more familiar affects of expressionism: neurosis, anxiety, panic, and sense of disaster. But equally important is the audibility of the work’s structure, sometimes described as neo-classic but really neo-romantic: it resembles nothing so much as the four-in-one movement structures of works like Liszt’s Piano Sonata and piano concerti, or Schoenberg’s own early and still-tonal compositions, the First String Quartet and Chamber Symphony. The difference is that in this final period the composer exercises a sovereign formal control over his developments and transitions which, even in the absence of traditional tonality, can clearly be heard in the flow of melodic events when these are properly understood and projected by the performers. And there is a breadth of emotion that rounds out and humanizes Schoenberg’s characteristic intensity.

All of which was evident in this performance. Alert listeners, even those who may have been put off by other Schoenberg scores, would have had their attention rewarded: this performance made sense. Emanuel Ax has made what is for me the most lucid and beautifully balanced recording of this work (supported with equal lucidity by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra). His performance Monday night was not identical; it has developed even greater subtlety, shading, and warmth. Ax fully understands how interwoven solo and orchestra parts are in this work; despite some obvious juxtapositions of solo piano and orchestra without piano, the form of this piece develops through continual interaction between the forces, the discourse flowing smoothly back and forth. It was a pleasure to watch him responding to the orchestral sections with as much involvement as if he were performing them himself. (Compare this with my reaction to the performance of this same work by Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez in January, 2010, in “Music in the Time of Disaster.”)

Proper orchestral balances are critical in allowing the dialogue to be heard, as they were in this performance. Masur’s (fils) concept of the concerto stressed the need for lucid texture (despite the large orchestra) and every phrase sang out with warmth and beautiful sonority, holding its place in the lyrical unfolding. The linear counterpoint (more lean and traditional than Ives’s multi-layered textures) was clear, and one always knew which were the primary and which the subsidiary voices. There is something especially thrilling when a work previously considered thorny and forbidding (thanks, partly, to Schoenberg’s personality and reputation) proves to be anything but. Like the rest of Schoenberg’s oeuvre, this music comes powerfully from the composer’s deepest core of feelings, but it reflects the maturing of that core and the control and mastery of the language with which to shape, balance and communicate a lifetime of experience. That this could be conveyed by talented musicians at the beginning of their careers augurs well for the future of such music.

Nijinsky dancing Petrouchka, 1911.
Nijinsky dancing Petrouchka, 1911.

Which brings us to “Petrouchka.” This work has become iconically familiar to audiences, and there is no need to worry about its coherence. No? Well, the performers still have to deliver the goods, and Stravinsky does not make it easy for them. I have heard the Boston Symphony wreck this score on two occasions, both times (I believe) as a protest against conductors who did not have the “chops” to bring off this very tricky piece. (I have also heard them play it superbly under Dutoit.) So the TMC and Asbury had to sweat quite a bit to keep this carnival of a score together. Sweat they did, with enormous virtuosity and energy. Making all those strings dance is quite a trick. (Stravinsky, supposedly, was listening to Bruno Walter rehearse a Mozart symphony. “Sing, sing” the maestro exhorts his players; “all wrong” says Stravinsky; “he should tell them ‘Dance, dance.’”) The TMC Orchestra did dance, but it took a lot of effort. The performance was thrilling and exhausting, with splendid contributions from trumpet, flute, piano, and violin soloists. The entire brass section revealed its agility in keeping up with the brisk pace set by the conductor, and the interlocking of moveable parts that characterizes Stravinsky’s approach to texture and continuity had bite and precision. One could marvel at the inexhaustible invention in the instrumental combinations, fully worthy of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s most talented pupil. If anyone in the audience did not imagine visual images or even choreography conjured up by all this color and movement, they must have been somewhere else.

That these works have all entered the repertory and are becoming more familiar to audiences is cause for rejoicing; but as with the rest of the canon, that does not make the job of the performer any easier. The members of the TMC Orchestra are bursting with energy and talent; their encounters with this repertory fairly crackle with excitement. This combined with the numbers of players on-stage can lead to performances that can be wild and woolly, which at times may feel overwhelming. The conductor who is used to trying to stimulate tired, over-worked performers has to shift gears with this bunch — what is needed is the management and controlled shaping of an over-abundant supply of enthusiasm. That such enthusiasm is directed toward the likes of Ives and Schoenberg paves the way for performances that find more and more creative and beautiful ways to make sense.

For a different view of this concert by Keith Kibler, click here.

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