Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra conducted by Killian Farrell, Nathan Aspinall, and Andris Nelsons, with Thomas Rolfs, trumpet soloist; July 8, 2019
Hector Berlioz, Roman Carnival Overture, op. 9
Detlev Glanert, Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (world premiere)
Peter I. Tchaikovsky, Hamlet Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare, op. 67
Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony no. 1 in F minor, op. 10
The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.
I brought several prejudices to this program: an aversion to the kind of inflated Romantic rhetoric that favors superficial emotional effect over deeply embedded musical processes (the loaded term to describe this is “manipulation of the audience’s emotions”); a predilection toward an open-minded listening and an encouraging reception for a previously unheard or brand-new work; an appreciation for eccentricity, individuality, and musical expressions of humor and irony (read “nose-thumbing”); an ear for a compelling and connected flow of musical events; and a phobia about ranking works and performances on a linear scale (“the best, almost the best, pretty good, etc.”).
Music can easily inspire superlatives. This is similar to the relatively recent audience habit of giving standing ovations. A deeply satisfying musical experience seems to be the non-plus-ultra of life, something so intense that it is, in the moment, beyond compare. If the music brings us fully to life, it eradicates the coolness of comparison (pace Brecht, who thought we should smoke while in the theater to keep from apart from the world of illusion into which we might be sucked). But superlatives need to be more than spontaneous expressions of enthusiasm. They require back-up and context. I have had a peak musical experiences at the Festival of Contemporary Music with work that I have not heard since; and if I did, I wonder whether they would inspire the same enthusiasm. The “peak experience” of the moment may or may not survive the test of time for one listener, or for many listeners, and it is impossible for any critic to know whether it will.
That said, how can I justify these value-statements: Shostakovich’s First Symphony is an astonishing and unique masterpiece; Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture is an over-blown piece of bombast?
First, a disclaimer: I am not a fan of Tchaikovsky, and approach his works with some trepidation. I highly value many of them, and was awakened at an early age to the power of music by “The Nutcracker Suite.” I find that his focus on intense emotional expression can spill over into excess, both in intensity and length, only abetted by his immense technical skill. For me, this makes even the works I prefer vulnerable to exaggerated performances, in which case I try to cut the music itself some slack.1 “Romeo and Juliet” was the first of four fantasy-overtures based on Shakespeare; it is a work I can thoroughly enjoy and admire, as long as the performance is well-shaped, and that it does not strive for maximum impact at every moment.
“Hamlet” suffers in comparison. It announces its themes in a heavy-handed way, flattening the complexities of Shakespeare’s characterizations into two-dimensional melodrama. It could be the background music to a silent film that is trying too hard; its signifiers for characters and events are redundantly obvious. The sense of continuity is episodic; it stops and starts, separating the different formal elements rather than joining them with transitions or transformations. But even this can be done with powerful effect, as in the first movement of Symphony no. 6 (Pathétique), or flatly, as here. The second theme linked to Ophelia comes and goes in an obvious fashion: a sensitive and vulnerable melody for the oboe accompanied by delicate strings, almost a caricature of the 19th-century idea of femininity that bears no relationship to the surrounding material in either of its appearances, ending with a clichéd cadence. One wants to say “come on, Peter Ilyich, you can do better than that.” There are moments with interesting and expressive harmonies, but many others that seem cut from the common cloth of Romantic “Sturm und Drang.”
Part of the negative impression was, admittedly, the performance as led by Nathan Aspinall. It was technically accurate and intense, but possessed little overall atmosphere. After writing this, I listened to Stokowski’s recording which imparted much more of the foreboding, sinister, and even perverse character of the drama by means of very subtle colors (especially in the strings) and varied phrase endings suggesting continuity of mood and musical thought. There was a greater sense of a unifying spirit, giving substance to the melodrama, suggesting the dominating presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Even so, the piece remains for me what used to be called a “pot-boiler.”
Another disclaimer: I am a big fan of musical humor and irony. That doesn’t mean I give carte blanche to any attempt at humor; there are some that seem to fall flat.2 But both Prokofiev and Shostakovich (not to speak of Haydn) are composers who are very effective in this regard; Prokofiev’s sense of irony is often leavened with affection (as in his Lieutenant Kije Suite), while Shostakovich’s is often tinged with parody, criticism, or even contempt (as in “L’Age D’Or”).
Two of Shostakovich symphonies, nos. 1 and 9, open with music that serves as an ironic critique of the pretensions of the symphonic tradition. We know that no. 9 was subject to the expectation that Russia’s great composer would offer, as his “Ninth,” a grand ode à la Beethoven in praise of the Russian people and their Great Leader in the wake of their victory in the Great War, instead of which Shostakovich produced a light, humorous neo-classical work clearly designed to defeat all such expectations (and perhaps leading to his denunciation in 1948). In a parallel way, the much earlier Symphony no. 1, composed as his conservatory graduation piece, eschews the grand rhetoric of the romantic symphony in favor of perky little off-key fragments from solo instruments tossed about in a wry fashion, artfully arranged to set things in motion. This is followed by a quasi-military march (perhaps of toy soldiers) before the full weight of the orchestra abruptly crashes down as the heavy artillery is summoned. The second theme is a lighter-than-air waltz for solo flute with gently off-kilter rhythms. And so forth. At age 19, Shostakovich had achieved not only a technical assurance but an individual voice that stayed with him throughout his compositional career. While Michael Steinberg’s program note can cite influences (Prokofiev, Mahler, Stravinsky), they are so thoroughly assimilated that the very diverse and even fragmentary surface is held together by a compelling flow of contrasting elements (a musical dialectic?) capable of a very wide range of expressive effects, from abrupt surprises, about-faces, humorous give-and-takes, big color-shifts (particularly between massed effects and delicate solos on strings, piano, wood-winds), and sustained, elegiac or tragic lyricism in the last two movements.
Shostakovich’s individual harmonic vocabulary presents itself in mature form; the mixture of major and minor, the introduction of dissonant elements into the harmonic texture, the unexpected and yet logical resolutions, all are traits that would continue to appear, in ever-changing but recognizable configurations, in his later works. The range of expression is vast, yet the individuality of the voice is never lost, nor does it call attention to itself: the aim is always expressive, and the expressions weave themselves into a connected fabric of great strength. Rather than being dismissed as an early outlier among Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, it seems that it should be included as integral and critical in relation to the canonical works (Nos. 5, 7, 10, and 13) if not to all of them.
While this is a preternaturally early manifestation of the mature composer, many of Shostakovich’s immediately subsequent works attempted a wildly dissonant, avant-garde vocabulary, including the Second3 and Third Symphonies, First Piano Sonata, and the wildly satiric opera The Nose. When, a decade later and under pressure from Soviet authorities, he returned to a more conservative musical language, the characteristics of this compositional voice were intact. Despite cross-influences, successful 20th century composers employed individual compositional techniques and developed them over time as a compositional identity. While Shostakovich would expand his technical range, it is impressive how much of his individual voice was present so close to the beginning of his career.
The performance by Nelsons and the TMC Orchestra was fully satisfying. The individual solos, which are so prominent throughout, were rendered with authority and brilliance. Nelsons shaped, encouraged, and coordinated effectively, producing a colorful, emotion-packed, and fully coherent reading. Shostakovich is a composer who seems to bring out the best in this conductor.
Detlev Glanert’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra is unusual in many ways. In scope and sonority, it is bigger and more musically ambitious than other works in this genre, and the trumpet engages in active conversation with a large, colorful orchestra over the span of four connected movements that carry an unusually wide range of expressive purposes, including that of eulogizing Glanert’s mentor Oliver Knussen, who passed away during its compositon. In the first movement, “Rites,” the orchestra asserts its energetic and colorful role immediately with an energetically pulsating theme, to which the solo trumpet adds a high, bright edge. Unlike most concertos, the orchestra does not fall away to make space for the soloist; Glanert takes advantage of the competitive advantage the trumpet possesses. At the start, soloist Thomas Rolfs visually revealed the multi-faceted nature of the solo part by bringing two trumpets and four mutes on-stage. This allows the composer to differentiate an array of distinct voices, the second of which was provided by a straight mute that soloed over whispering strings and muted snare drum. A cadenza pulled the solo instrument all over its full range in abrupt leaps, juxtaposing rapid trills and scale fragments with more sustained notes. The second movement, “Songs,” featured a cup mute and background jazzy harmonies reminiscent of Duke Ellington. A sustained duet with an English horn was followed by more whispering, this time including a quiet wind machine. “Dances” followed with energetic exchanges on the smaller trumpet in a super-high register, leading to an orgiastic climax, and then directly into “Invocation”, a return of the full-sized trumpet and the cup mute. A muted/open cadenza was followed by a dialogue with the orchestra that closely juxtaposed oppositional materials between them, leading to a return of the very quiet music from the second movement, this time including almost inaudible low string cluster-chords (very beautiful!) and a conversation with the solo violin.
Such an ambitious piece requires superb playing from soloist and orchestra, which it received from Rolfs, Nelsons (who is an accomplished trumpet player himself), and the TMC students. As a trumpeter friend in the audience remarked, it is not likely to enter the standard repertory—but that is not a mark of inferior musical quality. The concerto lacks the overt showiness of many works in this genre, but it is a serious and resourceful rethinking of its possibilities with ambitious expressive means, and deserves repeating.
How good is it? It is highly accomplished, technically brilliant, and engaging for the audience. It has expressive gravitas and will repay repetition. It would offer an attractive challenge to virtuoso trumpet players. What is hard to say on one hearing is whether in its great variety of moods and textures it all holds together. In other words, it seems to be very good music. That is why we need to hear it again.
Finally, the opener: Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture is an exuberant and fun-filled gift to the listeners. This composer understood perfectly how to be brilliant when he wanted to be; his orchestration is as lucid and colorfully expressive as Rossini’s, his melodic material beautifully lyrical, and his evocation of dance and celebration full of vitality and unpredictability. I particularly loved the asymmetrical phrases of the last section, where headlong melodies would break off at odd points, change direction, and rush off to elsewhere. The cheerful Dionysian orgy of an idealized carnival was irresistible. The conductor, Killian
Farrell, controlled his exuberant forces with the right balance of enthusiastic encouragement and crisp discipline. It set the right tone for a bright, crisp night of music.
- See my favorable review of Gil Shaham’s performance of the Violin Concerto three summers ago, as well as my less favorable review of String Quartet no. 3 (in comparison to Brahms’ String Quartet no. 3) as performed by the Borodin Quartet. ↩
- The last movement of Hindemith’s “Pittsburgh” Symphony may be such a place; on the other hand the last movement of the same composer’s “Schwanendreher” Concerto seems a fine embodiment of the kind of hardy good spirits that contain an element of humor, and his first Kammermusik indulges in obvious Dadaist pranks that are simply fun. ↩
- To be performed by the Boston Symphony on July 26 ↩