The Sound Ringing Forth
Years of listening to his symphonies through Hollywood Bowl amplification can leave you with a distorted sound image of Tchaikovsky’s remarkable orchestral language – what old Bernheimer used to refer to as the “slush pump.” The Fourth Symphony doesn’t seem to fare well indoors either, rendered unpopular these days by its excessive popularity. It had been years since I had heard it in its proper setting, until two weeks ago at Disney Hall, which may explain why it sounded so good. Stéphane Denève was the conductor.
A string player explained what is special about the Tchaikovsky sound: a way of layering the string scoring that lets in air and light. Whatever the means, the orchestral sound under Denève, bolstered by his fine sense of shape, made uncommonly good sense of Tchaikovsky’s wayward symphonic meanderings. It filled the hall with a great and novel experience that turned his moldy old Fourth into something brand-new and even, dare I say, wonderful.
Being French, M. Denève seemed possessed of that admirable ideal of clarity and balance that we hang on all French musicians from Boulez on down. His guest shot began with a generous serving of orchestral excerpts from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges and the last of Bela Bartók’s three piano concertos, with the marvelous Piotr Anderszewski as soloist. Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto may not challenge the fingers as do the first two; he wrote it for his wife Ditta, of lovely but modest talent. By the same token, it challenges the poet all the more. Winner of the 2002 Gilmore Award, that benefice that falls unsolicited from above, and remembered for a spectacular follow-up recital at Disney last season, young Anderszewski continues on his upward path.
The Sound Suppressed
By his exuberant extracurricular activities, James Conlon has virtually redefined the function of a major municipal opera company and its music director: not merely to present the masterworks of the repertory on a large stage in grandiose productions, but to attend to operatic creativity as it has been practiced in a far broader sense and to make this broad sphere, too, the responsibility of the major company. Obviously, there are many more directions for such a passion to extend than one person’s sympathies can embrace, but already, in his first season here, Conlon’s range of activity has been phenomenal: four main-stage productions, the Noah’s Flood at the Cathedral and, this past week, the inaugural of the long-term project known as “Recovered Voices.” All that, plus his willingness to take over as pre-event lecturer at all his activities – and the fact that everything he has done so far has been well done. This is what you call a mensch, Irish kid from Queens or no.
“Recovered Voices” actually began here a couple of seasons ago, when Conlon put together Viktor Ullmann’s concentration-camp opera The Emperor of Atlantis at a local synagogue. The term embraces not only music composed under imprisonment but music whose composers’ lives were in some way affected under Nazi rule, Jewish or (as with Ernst Krenek or Paul Hindemith) not. Last week’s concert, with singers on the empty Chandler Pavilion stage against a projected backdrop with Conlon and the orchestra in the pit, was all-operatic: selections from five operas plus a complete performance of Alexander Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy. All was music composed in German-speaking Europe, almost all in the 1920s.
Six composers, neighbors more or less, worked to restart their art in a land shattered, at least economically and psychologically, after a devastating war. Music itself had reached ground zero. Mahler was gone; the symphony, bulwark of a century of concert-hall music, had run its course. Only opera, under Richard Strauss and, briefly, Franz Schreker, flourished, perpetuating a style that claimed its ancestry from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde 60 years before, uneasily blended with Viennese kitsch and the Mediterranean weep. Some clumsy experiments with the newfangled American jazz provided a feeble enlivening force. For subject matter, these composers drew on the symbolism of the painters to the north. In the cabarets, a livelier style flourished; Marlene Dietrich danced, and the piano was played by men who would later become the first generation of Hollywood’s composers: Franz Wachsmann (later Waxman), Fritz (Fred) Hollander. Kurt Weill heard their music and Bertolt Brecht fashioned some of their lyrics, and together they created the musical drama that gives the era its real distinction.
Their music, too, incurred the wrath of Hitler’s goons, but it had leapt to international fame before the formulators of the “Degenerate Music” had pulled down the bars. The music in last week’s concert was entirely noble in the fact of its existence – Ullmann’s opera especially, whose ironic undertones have earned it frequent complete performances these days – and in its perpetuation. Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf is, if nothing else, a social phenomenon, the first opera to employ jazz, and popular for just that. (As students in Vienna, we all smoked Jonnys – cigarettes, that is.) But the jazz is corny and the sentiment worse, as a Long Beach Opera staging proved not so long ago. Korngold’s Die tote Stadt has unaccountably wriggled itself into the repertory, probably on the strength of its composer’s movie fame, although I’m willing to bet you could fashion a better opera out of his score for Kings Row than this hopeless goo.
Then there is Alexander Zemlinsky, whose one-act, hourlong A Florentine Tragedy was given complete in concert form. Zemlinsky has his champions. People were raving a few years ago when a disc of his Second Quartet appeared; I was not of their number, nor was I when the Philharmonic took up his Lyric Symphony, which merely seems the grandmother of all film scores. Florentine, to an ironic Oscar Wilde text ending in a juicy murder, is stronger stuff, especially down in the orchestra pit. Next season, we get his The Dwarf.
Not one of these works on this thoroughly fascinating and valuable program is meant to push aside any of our common fund of music. There is no set limit to the size or number of the active repertory. If I heard no new masterpieces, perhaps I heard a few more criteria for valuing the ones I already know. Reason enough.