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.
David Zinman led this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, where the big event was the world premiere of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, commissioned by the BSO and capping its survey of the Harbison symphonies last season and this. Zinman is a fine conductor, and all went well. He is not a great cultivator of sound or of refined playing, but he has a remarkable sense of musical structure; makes clear, sharp phrases; and sustains a strong rhythm, complex when need be. He opened with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, which sounded fresh and interesting in Zinman’s hands. It is basically a traditional sonata-form piece, but with unusual moves in development of material, and so made a good prelude to an evening of such music. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C followed, with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes giving what might be called a “nice” performance—nice tone and phrasing, all a bit polite and restrained, not fully letting go with Beethoven’s prankishness and oddity.
The opera reveals Strauss’s ruminations of several spirits of the musical past: his own, in part, as well as those of Mozart and Wagner. There are references to Daphne, Tristan und Isolde, Die Zauberflöte, Das Rheingold, and, in Jupiter’s galling fall and mortal return to Earth, to Die Walküre. One might justifiably claim that much of this work is derivative, but Strauss never fails to ravish us with breathtaking melody and sumptuous harmony.
Scandinavia’s rich cultural heritage, and the question of artistic conservatism in the modernist age, will be explored at the eighth annual Bard SummerScape festival, which once again features a sumptuous tapestry of music, opera, theater, dance, film, and cabaret, keyed to the theme of the 22nd annual Bard Music Festival. Presented in the striking Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and other venues on Bard College’s bucolic Hudson River campus, the seven-week festival opens on July 7 with the first of four performances by Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company, and closes on August 21 with a party in Bard’s beloved Spiegeltent, which returns for the full seven weeks. This year’s Bard Music Festival explores Sibelius and His World, and some of the great Finnish symphonist’s most fascinating contemporaries provide other SummerScape highlights, including New York’s first fully-staged production of Richard Strauss’s 1940 opera Die Liebe der Danae; Noël Coward’s chamber opera, Bitter Sweet (1929); Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama The Wild Duck (1884); and a film festival, “Before and After Bergman: The Best of Nordic Film.”
Michael Tilson Thomas was looking hard for insight in Schubert last Saturday. He found it in words, if not in the music. Indeed, you might say he chose the first Entr’acte from Rosamunde for an illustration of his point. As a young man, Thomas managed to alienate the Boston Symphony for decades by talking too much, and the tendency to lecture and otherwise condescend to his audiences from the podium still remains. This time, though, the music happened to be rather forgettable, and Thomas’ remarks about it more interesting. The Entr’acte seems to be part of a dry run for Schubert’s “Unfinished,” and MTT correctly pointed out that its harmony is headed in the direction of Mendelssohn and Schumann.
Though one hundred years old and a comedy set in 1740’s Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier is still fresh. This is partly because the opera is timeless because, as Robert Gibson and Andrew Riemer’s interesting program notes point out, it is an anachronistic mixture of different bits of Viennese cultural. For instance one can nitpick the fact the romantic waltzes Richard Strauss incorporated into the opera’s music and plot wouldn’t exist until the 19th Century (they were barely dancing l’Allemande with linked hands in the mid 18th Century). Thus the opera is about as logical and historically accurate as a myth is — it is a rich Dobos torte (whose recipe Dobos donated to the Budapest Pastry and Honey-bread Makers’ Guild five years before the opera’s première, for what it’s worth) of many integrated layers, some chocolate, some nutty, some sugary, and some disturbing, ashy and mawkish. Present also is something of Sigmund Freud’s contemporaneous Vienna, not just in the way we see how his patients’ inherited neuroses manifested themselves some generations prior, but also as psychology as one of the last frontiers of the enlightenment. The famous final duet is to be sung “träumerisch”: the young hero Octavian sings “Ist ein Traum…” just as the “secret of his dream is revealed” (see photo of tablet below). He wakes up from the intense love affair with the Marschallin and realises the true nature of his feelings. This happens only after he has convinced his rival the Baron Ochs of his insanity by simulating hallucinations in a kind of upside down abreaction in the form of a Viennese masked ball. Octavian awakens to the realisation that his love for the Marschallin is “mere” warm friendship and discovers true love for the young Sophie who is fresh from the convent. He had refused to face the dawn in Act I, but by Act III he comes to act on the dreams, or at least the strange events, of the intervening scenes in which he undergoes two transformations to the opposite sex, encounters a symbolic silver rose, tries to duel Ochs and sets up said masked ball, before fixing his and Sophie’s lives. Octavian, knightly and hot headed though he is, has a manly grace. He forsakes brute force in the end to find a third alternative to his problems, which should be relevant today when the beastly Baron Ochs’ style of greed of is often valued over character, civility and proper thinking. Or at least relevant to those who more reasonably mistake romantic love for friendship or believe one necessarily precludes the other for all time.
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?
Strauss was never more the musical conjurer than he was in Ariadne auf Naxos. With an ensemble of thirty-seven instruments, including harmonium, celesta, piano, harps and percussion, a shimmering and transparent opera emerges and asserts its lean clarity against a perceived Wagnerian monumentalism. Even when Strauss wants his cake after eating it, and strives for a Tristan-like blossom in the second half (the one and only “Act” of this work, the first half being a Prologue), one cannot fault the ensemble for sounding a bit threadbare in its overreaching to the Bayreuth master. After all, this textural contrast of light and heavy is all in line with the clever libretto of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which is an ironic comment on Love the Ideal and what we know as reality in our all-too-human relationships.