There’s something about Buffalo that is forever and wonderfully 1940. The city admittedly went through a difficult patch in the last decades of the century, before emerging today prosperous and half the size it was. From an artistic perspective, though, this may not be all bad. Buffalo escaped most of the Pizza Hut architecture and cereal box skyscrapers which typically afflict American cities. Today, great colonnaded turn-of-the-century hotels, banks and office buildings still reflect iconic dignity and Dreiserian business energy upon a downtown more formal and stylistically unified than most. When it comes to its resident orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic similarly avoided an onslaught of concrete, continuing to perform in Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by the Saarinens (father Eliel and son Eero) in 1940 and declared a national landmark in 1989.
A graph showing the reputation of Sibelius’s symphonies in the 20th century would look like a fever chart. When he wrote his first symphony at the very end of the 19th century, the composer was still struggling for recognition, and it took another decade for his work to receive international attention. Once that happened, his reputation rose to that of a composer whose music held the greatest interest for orchestras and audiences during a period when the early modernists were generating more polarized responses.
Writing here recently about last season at the Boston Symphony, I had recourse more than once to the phrase “just notes going by” in response to Andris-Nelsons-led performances that I did not like (I did praise a number of performances as well). I am happy to say that I think no one would say “just notes going by” about the recent, September 28th concert which opened the orchestra’s subscription series for 2017-2018. First, Nelsons and the orchestra and soloist Paul Lewis presented a definite view of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-major, Opus 58; they had something to say with it. And the large Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”) which followed, seemed to come into its own and express itself as fully as one could imagine.
There was none of the usual Russian overdrive in Ignat Solzhenitsyn’s performance with the fabled Mariinsky Orchestra last week in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. This worked well in selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, music which burns hot in performances by this orchestra and its regular music director Valery Gergiev.
The barn at Tannery Pond is particularly well suited to cello music — a kind of cello-within-a-cello, the musical equivalent to the old literary framing device, maybe. The instrument’s range and woody timbre are particularly appealing, even restful, resting on the ear’s most sensitive range of pitches, so it is no wonder cellists seek out such acoustics, or do things like making arrangements for 6, 8, or 10 cellos. In fact listening in the Tannery barn gives one the overwhelming urge to make music in it, even if just laying down a few purple chords on the piano — in that way perhaps Rachmaninoff is particularly well suited to the barn too. The audience did seem thrilled by Haimovitz’s and O’Riley’s playing of the young Rachmaninoff’s sonata in G minor. Rightfully enough, it was the sort of full blooded and full bodied (figuratively speaking, the musicians bodily movements were in fact very restrained) interpretation of Rachmaninoff that doesn’t spoil easily. They did take certain risks, though, over and above those of choosing such unplayable chamber music, O’Riley especially coming into his own in this sonata, which is really more of a duet between equals. His piano style seemed more at home with this kind of music than pure accompaniment, which is an art in itself, partly because he seemed more easy with the dynamic of two equals playing together, something sounding more like a trio or a contrapuntal quartet.
Long live the spirit of Victor Borge!
“What?” you say.
This odd notion popped into my head recently, as I witnessed for the first time pianist Lang Lang perform live. In town at the beginning of November to play the Prokofiev Third Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, he was such a stunning and (to me) unexpectedly enjoyable success, that I found myself pondering the very nature of musical stardom, almost as much as the music itself…
Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto didn’t deserve to be cut. It seems to have received, in any version, the homeric epithet “Rachmaninoff’s least popular” since it wasn’t popular at the première (1927) and wasn’t much more loved after the revisions (1928 and 1941), but this is perhaps as much due to the immense and perennial popularity of the 2nd and 3rd as any intrinsic quality of the 4th, and the unpopular label seems now to be beginning to give the original version a little bit of underdog cred. The original longer version was only published in 2000, and this performance, according to the Sydney Symphony, is the first of this version in Australia. It is a fascinating case of audience expectations based on a composer’s perceived style and the composer worrying too much about pleasing them. Luckily the original was not lost. Even so it is not very long, though it does have a leisurely, operatic quality to its pacing, almost a Mahlerian pace, but with its drama turned in, more psychological and untidy than the other concerti, and so it is not as exciting as the other concerti. It does not have too solid a form holding it together, it doesn’t tell a ‘story’ with beginning middle and end as the others do more obviously. It is not linear, or at least it is taller than it is long with all those enormous, thick, rich chords which defy a simple analysis and the long runs of impossibly fast notes which are not exactly melodic — maybe more harmonic as they ring in that resonant Steinway piano — but the melodies in the piece with the exception of the opening one are more like fragments of leitmotif without staging to help explain them. The opening theme returns here and there but it seems odd in its return, almost an interruption of the of the pensive, contemplative revery of the music, almost like the sudden landing of an eagle, or an angel, or a strange golden shaft of light. But the 20th century romantic music doesn’t need a strict form since Rachmaninoff’s concept is not architectural or plastic. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t have to worry whether it will stand up.
The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste