B-list Works Take Center Stage (Again): Fauré, Still, and Sibelius

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Alan Gilbert conducting TMC Orchestra in Masterclass. Photo Hilary Scott.
Alan Gilbert conducting TMC Orchestra in Masterclass. Photo Hilary Scott.

B-list Works Take Center Stage (Again): Fauré, Still, and Sibelius

Gabriel-Urbain Fauré – Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, op. 80
William Grant Still – Darker America (1924)
Jean Sibelius – Symphony no. 3 in C major, op. 52

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Conducted by Kevin Fitzgerald (Fauré), Adam Hickox (Still), and Alan Gilbert (Sibelius)

The A-list contains works that are already familiar to most concertgoers either through live performances or recordings. Their presence on programs means that audiences can anticipate their experience and compare their expectations with what they actually hear, for better or worse. The B-list, however, consists of works by composers which may be familiar, but which are less often performed, and therefore may offer listeners a first-time concert experience. Such was the case with the program offered by the TMC Monday night at Tanglewood. Membership in the B-list does not imply second-rate quality; it simply means that those responsible for programming (orchestra managers, conductors, commissioning bodies) have less faith in such works to attract audiences who like to know what to expect. In the case of the main work on Monday’s program, the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, the Boston Symphony has a performance history that seems driven by the affections of conductors who have a special identification with the composer. This includes Koussevitzky, who programmed the work five times, and Colin Davis, in his role as associate conductor, who programmed it three times. Other conductors include Robert Spano (twice) and Sakare Oramo (once). Up until last night, it was never performed at Tanglewood. That changed when Alan Gilbert led the TMC Orchestra in a vigorous performance that received a standing ovation.

Fauré’s suite straddles the lists. It has been performed frequently by the Boston Symphony, not only by its French conductors Monteux and Munch and guests Paray and Ansermet, but by all its other music directors in the 20th century. I suspect, however, that only the Sicilienne, which has been transcribed many times, is truly familiar. The other movements share Fauré’s understated subtlety of expression, and the whole barely qualifies as a full orchestral work: the composer was not very interested in the orchestra as a medium, and enlisted the help of students and colleagues to flesh it out. The suite contains four of the original nineteen pieces written for the 1898 theater production of Maeterlinck’s fashionable play. Three other major composers followed with their own musical responses: Debussy (opera), Sibelius (incidental music), and Schoenberg (tone poem). Despite Maeterlinck’s own tone-deaf ear, his play inspired such diverse musical responses, partly owing to the fact that during its course almost nothing happens.

William Grant Still’s 1924 tone poem, “Darker America,” is a true rarity, and merits B-listing by virtue of its quality and historic significance. The composer is an under-recognized but powerful figure in the emergence of popular music during and after World War I, in the music world of the Harlem Renaissance, and in the realm of 20th-century music in general. Nevertheless, despite advocacy by conductors such as Eugene Goosens and Leopold Stokowski, performances of his major works are rare: the Boston Symphony has only performed single movements of his best-known symphonic work, Symphony no. 1 in A-flat (“Afro-American”) under the baton of one conductor, and the TMC’s performance of “Darker America” was a first for Tanglewood. It may be worth noting that one work has attracted the attentions of George Szell, Artur Rodzinski, and Seiji Ozawa: “The Colored Soldiers Who Died For Democracy.”

“Darker America” references Afro-American spirituals, and employs a harmonic language derived from late Romanticism, early modernism, the blues, and the 1920’s avant-garde. Still had been an arranger for W. C. Handy and Paul Whiteman, and had studied with Edgard Varèse. From the start, this music layers familiar and unfamiliar idioms in a distinctly modernist texture. The result is that a common reading of popular elements as tropes for “entertainment” is problematized by fragmentation and layering that speak of both aspiration and disturbance. This is not easy music to assimilate, and requires repeated hearings. Still was to insist that his music was not simply an expression of the “souls of Black folk” (as W. E. B. Du Bois indicated in his inclusion of spirituals, or ‘sorrow songs’ in his eponymous book) but rather an indication of the contemporary human condition. Still’s “cross-over” idiom in this 1924 work is vastly different from that of its famous (A-list) contemporary Rhapsody in Blue. It is powerfully unsettling rather than celebratory, and perhaps for that reason has failed to take hold, at least until now. The committed performance was led by student conductor Adam Hickox.

It is tempting to compare the overall configuration of Sibelius’s seven symphonies to Beethoven’s nine. In the latter case, odd numbered symphonies (after the First) stand out like Himalayan peaks in a mountainous vista. Schumann called the Fourth “ a slender maiden between two giants”—thereby asking us to stereotype a marvelous work in advance of hearing it. Similar condescension marks commentaries about the Sixth and the Eighth. In Sibelius’s case, the high peaks are the Second and Fifth, with the Seventh visible in the distance. The First seems to be a warm-up for the Second, and the Fourth is the strangely shaped outcrop in the middle (the grumpy uncle whom we love anyway). But what of the Third and Sixth? They remind us that each work must be taken on its own, and that Sibelius thoroughly rethought symphonic form in terms of its language, form, and mode of expression every time he engaged with it. At a guess, what he was thinking for the Third was of a more compact form linked to classical models like Haydn, along with a greater reliance on the charm, energy, and character of the melodic materials themselves, rather than on their potential for structural/motivic development (although they fulfill that function effectively as well). It plunges, without introduction, into a series of extremely engaging gestures: a hearty march in the low strings, some country fiddling over a drone, and a pastoral melody for the winds, all utterly captivating, and all initiating a wonderful forward drive. The contrasting second theme simply appears, without transition, and the juxtaposition seems straightforward, lacking the existential mysteries that would be plumbed in the narratives of later works. And so it goes, mastery and originality allied with lucidity and a surface beauty unique to this work. The modest orchestra matches the modest dimensions. 

In the Second Symphony, the relation between the last two movements seems modeled on Beethoven’s Fifth, with a grand transition/build-up leading from the scherzo to the collective hymn of the final movement (another Sibelian moment adopted by Finns as a national anthem). In the Third, the final movement is in two connected parts: the first introductory, allusive, and fragmentary, the second another hearty and folk-ish tune not so much developed as reiterated with minimal variation so that we can enjoy it as much as possible. The final cadence, two grand chords saying “A – – – – men” seems an appropriate way to conclude such straightforward proceedings. But the separation of these chords anticipates the seven mighty chord strokes that end the Fifth Symphony in such a remarkable way. It seems to me that knowing all seven symphonies adds fascinating dimensions of retrospection and anticipation, not only within his oeuvre, but also in the larger frame of the history of the symphony, with idioms and formal devices that span the distance between Haydn and Lutoslawski. On the other hand, the work stands on its own, an inviting mountain pass among the high peaks.

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