While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach’s more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, “They all sound alike – how can you tell them apart?” These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way. To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach’s musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach’s cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills. Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson’s definitive field guide. Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends’ remarks about Bach’s vocal works.
Witold Lutosławski when he conducted himself preferred programs consisting solely of his own music to avoid entrapping the audience members who just wanted to hear again a classic (invariably put at the very end) and to encourage listeners who wanted to hear his music. However cynical you want to be about making the audience sit through avant-garde music to get to the ultra-popular Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, this was actually an adventurous program in being such a mixture. Risking the melomanic equivalent of the bends, somehow just avoided by virtue of the performance, specifically the Sydney Symphony’s style and close cooperation with visiting Britons Mark Wigglesworth and the very intelligent and feeling pianist Stephen Hough, the musicians made it all seem to hang together naturally, if loosely.
Richard Strauss once wondered about Mahler, to his face I believe, ‘Why don’t you write an opera? You could write such a good opera since you’ve put on so many at the Wiener Staatsoper.’ He didn’t understand and Mahler got pretty angry. In a way Mahler’s symphonies are operas without singers, a sort of total art, in a subjective sense — if that term doesn’t require total sensory stimulation — with vivid use of color and articulate deep expression. The level of abstraction attained by giving up words and human voices enabled him to express more faithfully what really gripped him. The Ninth, like all good symphonies, even more so for Mahler’s but especially in his Ninth, it is a multitude of contents, often all at the same time — ambiguity and paradox seem easily expressed, even refined in Mahler. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s and each of the instrumentalists’ attention and care for each melody, theme, chord and layer in the music make this so clear even as the complexity of the music seems to nourish them; they generously create something fascinating and consoling to listen to — in fact partly because of its complexity it sticks with the listener long afterward.
Oboist Diana Doherty led the first piece, the Mozart wind octet with a string bass, wood wind and horn players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. A fine group of musicians who did shine in recent large symphonic performances, especially Mahler’s Sixth, it is nonetheless good they had the chance to play as a chamber group without a conductor. One might think the piece might be a little too intimate for the large symphonic hall, and it is occasional music composed for a specific room in a specific nobleman’s palace, like many of Mozart’s serenades, sinfoniettas, divertissements, cassations etc. Mozart in his letters often sounds nonchalant, though honestly so in a modest manner, when he describes composing such pieces, making a few florins on the side while traveling to a larger city or waiting for his next chance to write an opera. But he really put as much into them as a symphony and this octet is especially sublime. The musicians seemed to play it with a sense of occasion, since it did quite nicely fill the hall and being such danceable music, not even in just the minuet movements, the performance strongly evoked the ballroom, and a very tasteful one.
Ah, the tone of a production. Was Schumann right when he quoted Schlegel at the top of his score to the Fantasie this way: “Through all the world’s dream there sounds one tone for him who can hear it?” I’m thinking now of many different pieces — Our Town of Thornton Wilder, first. This concentrated text has the bareness, the emptiness of Greek tragedy on the page. The actions, however, are humble. Is there a single tone there?