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).
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony!
Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.
The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
The dual nature of the contemporary orchestral concert experience was clearly displayed last Friday and Saturday nights by the Boston Symphony concerts at Tanglewood. Each offered its own image of how an audience can interact with familiar works. Each featured a central European conductor leading core repertory: one concerto and one symphony each, all works familiar to habitual concert-goers. Each pair of pianists and conductors exhibited strongly-marked contrasts. Both concerts were satisfying, but in very different ways and to markedly different degrees.
I’m in two minds about the Proms tradition of always allotting significant programming space to composers with major anniversaries. It’s transparently a fairly arbitrary device to make the programmers’ jobs much easier and minimise the thorny problem of personal taste entering the decision-making process; on the other hand, without it we would never get three concerts this year featuring one of my favourites, Percy Grainger (died 50 years ago). In particular, the late night Prom on 2 August including Kathryn Tickell and June Tabor, celebrating the folk music Grainger was inspired by, is to me one of the most interesting this year.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony stood alone last Thursday at Davies Hall, as the San Francisco Symphony prepared for its European tour. It has become normal practice to schedule this work with a long, rather liquid “intermission” preceding it, instead of any music. And audiences intuitively understand why. They have signed on for an emotional catharsis.
Capo di tutti capi. If you must have a gang invade your turf, let it be a gang of scintillating Russian conductors. The UK is in that enviable position – for some reason the Russians haven’t made real inroads in America – and Valery Gergiev in particular has London at his feet. All but the critics, that is. They are grumpy about Gergiev, and admittedly he is a grandstander. His first concert this summer was a program of almost amusing arrogance as he led the World Orchestra for Peace in the Mahler Fourth and Fifth symphonies. One knew in advance that it would be too much of a glorious thing. The mega-wattage of the orchestra, which draws its roster from the great orchestras of the world (even the back bench violins are first and second desk players at home) insured an evening of thrills. This ad hoc ensemble premiered in 1995, the brain child of Sir Georg Solti, who wanted it to symbolize harmony among all peoples. High-flown sentiments, but on the rare occasions when the World Orchestra assembles, with Gergiev now at the head, even the citizens of Berlin and Vienna have to take notice. This is orchestral playing of sizzling virtuosity.
On taking my seat in the Music Shed, I was surprised to see the gentlemen of the BSO in shirtsleeves — and it was a pleasant surprise. Their playing of Mahler’s Second was very much a shirtsleeves sort of performance, and that was also a pleasant surprise. I’ve heard that Michael Tilson Thomas had very little rehearsal time for this concert. This made itself heard, I thought, in a certain lack of concentration in the fifth movement — entirely unlike the first three movements, which were intensely focused, if anything. Even with this proviso, the performance was an impressive success. MTT took charge of the orchestra with total confidence and produced his personal sound and interpretation from the orchestra with authority and conviction — and it was precisely this that made the performance so outstanding.
Riccardo Chailly, not only one of the great conductors of our time, but one of an even smaller group who have exercised a truly formative influence on contemporary musical life through his championship of twentieth and twenty-first century music—through his many recordings, most of them for Decca, which he has produced since the beginnings of his career in the late 1970s, and through his long tenure as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (1988-2004), and now, since 2005, as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. If you survey the most prominent music publications, you will find many accolades, “artist of the year,” “best recording,” etc., and you will find many of his recordings recommended as the best available or the “recommended choice.” His fresh, individual interpretations, always based on a close study of the score, as well as his close relationship with a single recording company over many years, have resulted in recordings in which his ideas and the sound of his orchestras and their halls are communicated with exceptional vividness and presence.