Subtlety in the Shed: an Oxymoron? Nelsons and the BSO play Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Gershwin, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

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Nelsons and Thibaudet play Gershwin.
Nelsons and Thibaudet play Gershwin.

Subtlety in the Shed: an Oxymoron?

Gershwin – Concerto in F
                    Variations on “I Got Rhythm”
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Stravinsky: Petrushka
Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, July 21, 2019

After the sparkling performance of George Gershwin’s little gem of variations on one of his most popular songs, an audience member asked her husband “Do you want to stay after intermission?” Certainly the atmosphere had been more that of a Pops concert with hearty applause after the first movement of the concerto as well as an ovation at the end; but at that moment it struck me that the ears that savored the pleasures of Gershwin might not relish the kaleidoscopic astringencies of Stravinsky. The much less enthusiastic audience reception for the ballet score affirmed this, despite a performance that capably revealed the colors and shapes of this astonishing breakthrough work.

Was it a mistake to pair these composers? Or to program Stravinsky on a Sunday afternoon? Or to play such a demanding score at a festival that requires the orchestra to learn three different programs a week? Or simply to play them in such a problematic acoustic space? “One asks” (to quote Nietzsche).

I consider Gershwin’s Concerto in F one of his best works and perhaps his greatest symphonic effort. While his earlier piano and orchestra works (Rhapsody in Blue, I Got Rhythm Variations) feel like expanded versions of the composer’s Broadway overtures, the Concerto transcends such a patchwork approach. The large-scale structure lends itself to a compelling narrative arc of vivid and complementary emotions, the scoring (by Gershwin himself, unlike the Rhapsody in Blue of a year earlier, scored by Ferde Grofé) is deft and colorful, and the idiom is thoroughly imbued with jazz/blues feeling in a way that feels comfortable for a symphony orchestra and that has not been matched by later Gershwin emulators (not even Bernstein): for Gershwin, the influences of jazz, Ravel, Stravinsky, Cubism, and even cinematic montage merge effortlessly, without self-consciousness. The trumpet melody of the slow movement is transcendent, perfectly scored for the registral colors of that instrument and projected into an expansive time-frame that surpasses the related trumpet blues of An American in Paris, composed three years later. The coup of starting with a solo timpani motto theme may have a precedent in Richard Strauss’s Burleske (which was performed four times in New York between 1917 and 1924, when Gershwin could have heard it) but in comparison Gershwin’s brash opening speaks in a New York dialect: self-confident, punchy, and a bit over the top. The large-sized gestures, the generous emotional range tilted toward the light-hearted but filled with the blues, the scoring sometimes anticipating the big-band era (this was composed in 1925!) all render this piece completely legible to a modern audience without any of the markers dating it in the way that so much music from the 1920’s is. (Compare it, for example, to other jazz-influenced scores like Copland’s Piano Concerto of 1926.)

Thibaudet’s performance of the piano part was elegant and nuanced. He did not try to project to the back row, but sought in the piano’s first appearance to draw in the audience’s ears with beautifully quiet eloquence. A similar insistence on subtle shaping of the piano part characterized the performance as a whole. Thibaudet knows his jazz, and gives a subtle swing without any distortion of the written part. Meanwhile, Nelsons encouraged the winds, brass and percussion to play in an extroverted manner that kept the musical vessel listing to the orchestral side, and rendered the piano part almost that of an occasionally inaudible concertante collaborator rather than a heroic voice dominating the raucous crowd. Gershwin’s solo part suffers in this arrangement as the piano is often engaged in rapid-fire repartee with the orchestra, or plays beautifully crafted accompaniment figures that need to be heard, but that were all but lost here. The radio listeners may well have enjoyed a stronger and more appropriate presence from the piano; I would have liked to compare my experience with that of audiences listening to the broadcast.

The “I Got Rhythm” Variations fared better, and made a stronger impression than the previous performance I heard (and reviewed in New York Arts) by the Albany Symphony a few years ago. The work is indeed a patchwork, but one that resembled a colorful cubist collage, with contrasting brightly colored bits juxtaposed to jaunty, life-affirming effect. Thibaudet’s pianism emerged more clearly, and his mastery of this classical-jazz idiom was elegant and natural-sounding, while the orchestral textures were more translucent. Once more, Gershwin’s embodiment of the spirit of the 1920’s emerged as fresh, youthful, and fun-loving. No wonder some of the audience felt satisfied and did not stay to face the unknown challenges of Stravinsky.

The worlds of Gershwin’s Concerto and of Stravinsky’s Petrushka may seem parallel: both draw powerfully from popular and folk cultures, offering personal distillations shaped by a modern sensibility; but they could not be further apart in atmosphere, melodic materials, and artistic voice. They are separated by thirteen years, as well as by a world war and a hemisphere. Indeed, while Gershwin’s music is filled to the brim with his unmistakable personal voice, Stravinsky’s music has no personal voice whatsoever. It has accents, textures, colors and strategies that reveal the identity of the composer, but the voice is that of an incredibly skilled ventriloquist who channels a world of many voices, none of which can be identified with the composer himself. This genius for impersonation lends his music a supremely objective quality, and is responsible for the remarkable individuality of each composition. If there is a recognizable tone hovering below the surface, it is perhaps owing to his synthesis of the characteristics of the Russian language and of Russian folk music, whose melodies pervade the three great scores for the Ballets russes that made his career between 1909 and 1913. Petrushka (1911) is the middle work in this trilogy, which also includes The Firebird (1909) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913), and the one in which such melodies are most out in the open. 

This overall quality of objectivity led Stravinsky to inveigh against most performances of his music, accusing his interpreters of taking liberties with what was marked in the scores. He suffered no uncalled-for rubatos, no deviations from marked tempos, no personally-motivated expressiveness. He even imagined having his music performed by mechanically perfect machines, and his original score for his Russian wedding piece Svadebka (better known as Les Noces) called for player pianos before he acceded to the demands of practicality and rescored it for four normal pianos and percussion. This is not to say that Stravinsky’s music is cold or emotionally unmoving; in fact, it spans a wide range of human feelings in touching and dramatic ways, but it presents us with these states of being shorn of the trappings of a romantic narrator who conveys them through his/her own voice. A specific and remarkable characteristic of Petrushka is its success in portraying the moods of the crowd at the Shrovetide fair, the gestures of individuals such as a the barker, the magician, the wealthy merchant, or the dancing bear, and above all, the intimate emotional life of its puppet protagonist. The juxtaposition of such diverse subjects is accomplished by means of Stravinsky’s unique form of montage continuity, anticipating the theories of Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein by a decade or more. 

This is the fourth live performance of Petrushka I have heard, all at Tanglewood. The first two were disasters: this is a score that requires a specific conducting technique that focuses on precise articulation, coordination, and avoidance of romantic phrasing and expression. These are not the traits we associate with the romantic figure of the maestro; but they were/are cultivated by the best Stravinsky conductors, including Pierre Monteux, Stravinsky himself, Hans Rosbaud, Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, Michael Gielen, Reinbert de Leeuw, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. What they share is an appreciation of Stravinsky’s unique orchestral craft, in which the colors of individual instruments need to remain clearly audible even in complex mixtures, a bit like the dots of color on a Seurat canvas. Unlike composers in the German tradition, including Hindemith and Schoenberg, Stravinsky did not build his harmonies from the bottom up; and his superb ear for instrumental timbre enabled him to avoid the merging of harmonics that creates the blended, gluey sound of a German romantic orchestra. The most important characteristic of a Stravinsky performance should be rhythmic “spring,” but equally important is textural transparency. The trick for a conductor is to inspire the players with energy so that the rhythms are bright and accurately articulated but do not express tension or angst. They must “bite” but not “chew.” The lower-register instruments are there for character and color, not to support an acoustic edifice. Richard Taruskin, our leading Stravinsky scholar, has demonstrated that Stravinsky strove for a remarkable paradox: to create an experience of musical stasis, to remove the dynamic and forward-pointing elements of music (tension and release, predictable phrases leading to logical cadences, etc) and replace them with musical states of being. These states can portray a remarkable range of experiences, one of which seems unique to this composer: a sense of ritual. It is no accident that Stravinsky’s best-known piece is Le Sacre du printemps, originally called “The Great Ritual.” But Petrushka is also in a more modest way a ritual. The portrait of a specific event that has a date (1837) and a place (St. Petersburg) attached to it renders it beyond time and place. Because there is no dramatically familiar shape, each element has no predestined beginning or end; it can play in our minds on a loop. The musical “eye” moves from scene to scene, but none of them are left behind. Even the protagonist, the puppet Petrushka, rises from “death” to assault our ears with fresh insults (now and in the future: he is indestructible); the final notes of the double basses are a tritone apart, barely indicating that the score has concluded. It only gradually dawned on the audience that it was time to applaud, unlike the Gershwin pieces whose endings were easily anticipated and cued the applause effortlessly.

Of the four performances, the one that best fit my ideal (described above) was conducted by Charles Dutoit at Tanglewood in 1987. (He had conducted it in Boston two years previously, and was to bring it back to Tanglewood in 1996.) Unlike the first two conductors (who shall remain unidentified here), Dutoit not only knew the score from memory, but had worked out his gestures and cues with care and precision. Every entrance or shift in rhythm was clearly telegraphed in advance so that the players could play in a confident and relaxed manner, enjoying the inexhaustible energy and variety of the score. Conductors affect their performances in subtle or intangible ways as well, sometimes through their sheer physical presence.1 There was something balletic about Dutoit’s motions and stance that kept the textures light and transparent, something that all the players responded to, not to say that some or much of this might have been drilled into them during rehearsals. But no amount of planning can guarantee a magical unanimity of spirit—this is the effect of charisma. 

Andris Nelsons’ charisma and body-language lead to a different type of orchestral sound and attitude toward rhythm. In my review of his first Tanglewood performances (July 15, 2012) I complained that his Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms) was Brahmsian, meaning that he was trying for a deep, harmonically-based sonority, along with the kind of richness and even opacity that sounds wonderful in Brahms (as in Nelsons’ traversal of all his symphonies in Boston a few years ago) but which neutralizes the delightfully eccentric and unique sounds of Stravinsky’s scoring. In this Petrushka, a similar heaviness was apparent (Nelsons, now heavier (i.e. corpulent) than he was back then, has correspondingly weightier gestures): he would make sweeping arm motions full of enthusiasm that elicited a blissful climactic moment worthy of Wagner; he asked for weight in low string chords that made them trudge like Mussorgsky’s ox-cart, slowing down passages, underlining where it was not necessary. Stravinsky’s scoring possesses ample character; it just needs to be played as is. This performance did not ruin the music; it was accurate and well-played, but it felt slightly “colorized” despite the fact that the colors are already there in the score. 

This may have also been in response to the space in which the music was performed, an attempt to project the musical substance to the back row of a 7,000 seat hall (perhaps an impossible task).2 There is no doubt about Nelsons’ and the orchestra’s enthusiasm, even love for this music. The many solos were uniformly superb. If the conductor does not know the score very well, the piece falls apart (as it did in those first two performances, but certainly not here). But there is more magic in this music than we heard: the magician who makes the puppets come to life and dance also needs to make the score come to life—and dance.

  1. Legend has it that the Berlin Philharmonic played better when Furtwängler was sitting at the back of the hall, even when he wasn’t conducting.
  2. In my 2012 review of Nelsons’ Tanglewood debut, I wrote “Nelsons’ vividly demonstrative mimetics may be the most efficient way to birth a performance capable of reaching the back row of the Shed.” This is still the case.

1 thought on “Subtlety in the Shed: an Oxymoron? Nelsons and the BSO play Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Gershwin, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

  1. I so appreciate this informed, penetrating, and serious review. Listening keenly to Thibaudet from the middle of the Shed (one had really to concentrate) was thrilling. I marveled at his thoughtful and deep immersion in Gershwin’s orchestration, eschewing showboating even in the cadenzas, and both engaging in intimate conversations with individual players and instrumental sections and taking the supporting role of a jazz pianist in a a big band. My sense was that Gershwin was exposed not only to Paul Whiteman but as well to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The African-American sensibility in his trumpet blues seemed infused with admiration for Ellington’s Bubber Miley on “The Mooche” and, inevitably, to Armstrong’s “West End Blues.”

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