Tchaikovsky wrote Queen of Spades, in 1890, and one other opera, Iolanta, in 1891, near the end of his life after having promised never to write another opera because of the unpopularity of The Sorceress (1887). For theatre, these were very fertile years for Tchaikovsky. The Mariinksy first performed Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892. He wrote Queen of Spades at a Mozartean rate in Florence where it is said he composed the music faster than his brother Modest wrote and sent the libretto scene by scene. Perhaps living in Florence gave him enough distance from the darker, more repellent aspects of the story to avoid getting run down by it, but anyhow it seems a strange subject for him to choose, especially surprising to hear the incredibly lyrical music he created for it. The antihero Hermann is repellent, but for some of the beautiful music Tchaikovsky gave him, yet even so Hermann’s are not as beautiful as Don Giovanni’s arias (and duets), but I don’t believe Tchaikovsky thought or intended his music to be as beautiful as Mozart’s.
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.
Tonu Kalam supervises an orchestra which has the advantage of being immense, but whose refinements over the many years invariably disappear with the awarding of a diploma. At least 65 of its members are not even music majors. And yet the quality of execution is astonishingly high. (Indeed, there were moments during his concert when one might have been forgiven for thinking oneself in the presence of Ashkenazy’s fully professional-sounding European Union Youth Orchestra.) Indeed, several members of Kalam’s orchestra were invited to play sitting in with the EUYO for its concert.
This fascinating and varied program, each piece using equally colorful but very different orchestras and very different forms and structures, shows us some of the breadth of the Sydney Symphony. Their style is nimble enough to express itself in multifarious ways and Ashkenazy’s style and approach to symphonic music is well suited to the three pieces. To mark the occasion of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary, they have done something special in commissioning themselves a new piece by way of an open competition. Elliott Gyger’s entry was chosen, and though only alloted a short amount of time to fit into this larger program of more familiar pieces, it does rather expand under the intensity of its short broken up motifs and its varied colors, sounds and textures, qualities Ashkenazy, at least as a conductor, seems to relish. The piece’s title refers to the SSO’s origin as a radio orchestra formed along with the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 1932. Gyger says he used an ensemble of 17 instruments, the same in the original 1932 radio orchestra, which for his “dialogue” are spread through the larger orchestra: three violins, viola, cello, bass, two each of trombones, trumpets and clarinets, a horn, sousaphone, piccolo, piano and percussion.
The concert pulled us away from a particularly beautiful sunset over Sydney with Cray-Pas pink-crimson streaks and squiggles and a new moon following closely behind the sun, sparing us the feeling of mono no aware of a finished sunset. Zarathustra gave us maybe a more conventional sunset’s “riot of color”, or rather sunrise, to complete Vladimir Ashkenazy’s three concert series of Germanic music which opened the Sydney Symphony’s 2012 season. This small selection of major Strauss symphonies if not totally satisfying and complete in itself, gives one an urge to seek out more Strauss in order to seek out more in Strauss. Then again symphonic music can be enjoyed as a riot of marvelous sounds. Ashkenazy’s pairings in the three concerts of a tightly formed Beethoven piece — The Ninth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture, respectively — with a more spread-out Strauss piece (with the exception of Metamorphosen), perhaps more fun to conduct than to listen to at times, and the music with Vladimir Ashkenazy’s enthusiasm for it, speaks for itself and justifies itself. Anyway, it is hard to speak generally about Strauss since he is quite varied even within one piece.
Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra continue with the second in their triptych of Beethoven-Richard Strauss concerts which opens their 2012 season. Maestro Ashkenazy, their artistic director for the past few years who usually conducts himself several concerts at the beginning and end of the season (the Eternal Summer!), and the SSO seem to have established a warm and close rapport and respect, to judge from the jocular, playful exchanges and inaudible banter he shares with the orchestra members after the music, shaking hands with all the front-row strings after every concert, as well as from the fine and detailed interpretations they create together. Stephen Kovacevich brought a remarkable like-mindedness to this partnership. He also brought a complimentary attitude so that the concerto was a conversation beyond words between individual beings. The sound of his piano and what Kovacevich expressed therein had a remarkably immediate, very close presence, where often there is a wider gap between a guest soloist-virtuoso and the audience. Similarly the orchestra had a generous and open pellucid quality — not ever quite the homogeneously mixed and integrated sound of cogs in the the romantic-orchestral apparatus, nor exactly a contrasty orchestra of soloists, but something in-between those extremes and something else entirely which preserved the instruments’ characteristic timbres, at least section-wise, in an even-handed balance, a sound which can speak coherently in many different ways all at once. Kovacevich got through his childhood concert début some 60 years ago and so has nothing to prove, and his performance with Ashkenazy, himself a pianist, and now a conductor, of great experience, had deep maturity, but also at the same time a playful child-like quality, a surface insouciance rather more interested in the details and problems in the music which matter.
To open the Sydney Symphony’s 2012 season and the year of their 80th birthday, Vladimir Ashkenazy. artistic director and chief conductor, has put together a generous program of powerful German music. Beethoven’s Ninth finds itself played to mark great occasions, the reopening of Bayreuth in 1953 comes to mind and its own creation came at the end of decades of war in Europe. The Sydney Symphony has not played it for five years — for their 75th anniversary — so it would feel now about due for their attention. The piece is so famous and familiar, though, even as an occasional performance, there is the risk of over familiarity. With so much wonderful inherited music and worthy current music and music which would potentially exist given the opportunity of performance, should the Ninth, or any piece, be played if the performance cannot discover anything new in the piece? For the listeners, they can always seek out new aspects of the piece since one’s disposition and experience in life effect one’s ears so strongly, but it helps to have musicians, like Ashkenazy, full of ideas. “Occasion” implies some shared new experience anyway. But on the other hand, the earthly specificity of an occasion can in a way put a drag on a sublime performance of the Ninth. It is such spiritual, metaphysical music, rooted in itself, in this way a universal piece, somehow worldly events seem to anchor it in time and space in an uncomfortable way, paradoxically perhaps. As a birthday party for a very fine and healthy symphony orchestra with surely many more anniversaries ahead of it, the occasion here did not “get in the way,” as it were, very much, rather the music tended to come first, as it should. A symphony orchestra is after all a selfless crew in many ways.
If a person did come to understand the true nature of reality and the universe, why we exist and die and how we exist after, if they could answer in one the curious person’s every “why?” in the endless chain, could that thought even be solidified into words? or even rarefied into music? If it could these words would at best be the ultimate “inarticulacy of the new”; or if this person glanced off some truth tangentially and put it into words they would sound like a madman or a prophet or at best a poet. Is music any more articulate than words here? Music is more articulate perhaps in its being more akin to the primary “image” of a thought before it is put into words — prose words anyway — it need not commit itself to one of the set of concrete objects or abstract concepts allowed by language. Then again I don’t want to do language a disservice since it can deal in these images, especially in poetry, and anyway music is like language in that there is a certain grammar of sounds which make musical sense; an infinite freedom amongst all the audible sounds would lead to infinite chaos, or at least just bad music. This is not how music evolved in any case, but instruments can say things outside of words’ ken (and vice versa).