Thursday, June 14, 2012

Music for the mind

Ojai North at UC Berkeley, June 13, 2012:
Janáček: String Quartet 2, "Intimate Letters"
Reinbert de Leeuw: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai
Ives: Piano Sonata no. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860
  Norwegian Chamber Orchestra;
  Reinbert de Leeuw and Marc-André Hamelin, pianos;
  Lucy Shelton, speaker
CAL PERFORMANCES, the performing-arts booker at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, engaged this summer to bring the Ojai Festival north from its annual May schedule in its bucolic setting in Ventura county, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

There, for a number of decades now, contemporary and standard-rep music, for orchestra and chamber ensembles, has been performed in an outdoors shell in a park by the tennis courts which provide one of Ojai's other tourist attractions. Stravinsky performed here; I heard Boulez conduct here forty years ago; once I even performed, reading one of John Cage's lectures with violin and percussion collaborators.

I've always thought that events like these should tour. California's a big country, close to Italy in size; it's a shame to let the work of producing such festivals be spent all at one location only.

I'm not sure the second week of June is the best time to present such concerts in Berkeley, though. School's out; people are away; the weather's glorious; apparently most people have find even the superb acoustics of Hertz Hall less attractive than competing possibilities.

We too are staying away for the most part: the hundred-forty-mile round trip is just too much to repeat next day, and there's too much work to do at home to stay away for three whole days. But yesterday's double concert was too attractive to ignore.

I like the idea of the schedule: two short concerts, one at seven in the evening, the next at 9:30. And the programs! As Christopher Hailey's lucid, intelligent program note was headed, this is music "between then and there, here and now"; individual pieces which generate among themselves a musical conversation about things both personal and historical, conceived by composers of unusually deep and penetrating minds.

The Janáček quartet was played in an adaptation for string orchestra (6-5-4-4-2 in this configuration), with solo players occasionally bringing strategic moments further forward from the ensemble. From my seat centered in the last row — my favorite spot in this hall — the sound was marvelous, both full and focussed. The dynamic range was amazing: pianississimi barely audible, recalling Berg's frequent direction wie ein Hauch, "like a breath." (Except that such silences are breathless; they force you to suppress all activity in your total concentration on the moment.)

At the other end of the range, full-throated fortissimi, almost taking the instruments beyond the range of musical sound into that of noise. Janáček's quartet is "about" his illicit love for a much younger woman, an obsession that found its final musical outlet in this late piece. He was 74 when he wrote it, in the last year of his life: it is in many ways a valedictory. Themes and instrumental assignments are identified quite directly with himself, his ardor, and the young woman; but the piece is also "about" larger, more general matters than personal experience: life and death; age and youth; release and control.

And beyond these matters, which can be individuated within the score and its performance, there is the uniquely musical component, perhaps most easily identified in the transitions — from solo to ensemble, soft to loud (or the reverse), note to phrase, phrase to section. Janáček was famously concerned with finding musical equivalents of speech, specifically the urgent rhythms and crisp consonants of his native Czech language (born in Hukvaldy, near the Polish border, he was Moravian); and his melodic style is given to short thematic outbursts, repeated motives, nervous pacing, all now and then contributing to a longer, fuller statement. Listening to Janáček, you can't help thinking his music is telling you something; and frequently he — and his performers — seem as frustrated as you at the fact you can't tell exactly what it is.

You could tell exactly what it is Reinbert de Leeuw was "talking" about in Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, his cycle of twenty-one (three sets of seven) mediations on well-known Lieder by Schubert and Schumann, setting poems by Heine, Müller, Goerthe Eichendorff, and Ludwig Rellstab. He was telling us what these marvelous songs mean — to him, to us, to the world; and what they meant at the ardent time of their first hearing, when both poem and setting were dashed off, apparently so quickly and unsuppressibly.

And so once again we were confronting age and youth; but now the age of our present postmodern condition and the youth of German Romanticism. On the one hand, by pushing the material of these songs to dramatic extremes, de Leeuw almost succeeds in making what T.S. Eliot would have called a contemporary "objective correlative" of them, not only restoring the youthful, almost adolescent freshness of the original songs through the heightening of their musical expression, but also creating a new, contemporary equivalent of them, by linking Schubert and Schumann (and thereby Heine and Goethe, who after all have lost, for most of us, the surprising immediacy and presence they must have had for their contemporaries) to the long arc of musical and poetic culture their work generated, nearly two hundred years ago.

So de Leeuw not only suggests Mahler and Brecht-Weill and Schoenberg; he also suggests — especially through his technical means — the world of cabaret and rock opera. The American soprano Lucy Shelton, billed on the program as "speaker," certainly speaks some of these lines: but she also sings, and shrieks, and "sprechstimmes" in the manner of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (which she performed two weeks ago in Glasgow), always using a body microphone, alternately standing, turning her back to the audience, facing one or another of the instrumentalists, sitting dejectedly, or stalking about the stage, wearing a black vaguely Biedermeier sheath with a dramatic gold wrap, boldly decorated with what seem to be abstract Klimtian roses or pomegranates, thrown over her back and shoulders. She was ingratiating, seductive, sorrowful, boisterous, reflective, defeated, exhausting, magnificent.

De Leeuw played piano, occasionally beating time or indicating entrances, upstage center, six wind players (flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn) at his left in an open arc toward downstage left; six strings (two each violins and celli, viola and double bass) symmetrically disposed to the right of the harpist who sat on his own right. Fourteen musicians; thrice seven texts.

De Leeuw is of course Dutch, born in 1938 in Amsterdam where in 1974 he founded the Schönberg Ensemble, and since then seems to have been more active as pianist and conductor than as composer. According to Wikipedia his last composition was written for them in 1985; "Since then he has only made adaptations and instrumentations." But if Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is any indication these "adaptations" are full-fledged new compositions in their own right, and this one a particularly significant one, endlessly rewarding and persuasive for its strictly musical content, and meaningful and provocative for what it has to say about the philosophy of music and history.

De Leeuw is a fine pianist — his recordings of Satie are among the finest I know. We last heard him in November 2010, when he provided the music for Hans van Marien's ballet Without Words — playing the piano accompaniments to Hugo Wolf's Mignon songs, the dance alone providing the normally sung component. He played then, as he did last night, with taste, care, and restrained passion: he is a thoroughly admirable example of intelligent, artful restraint.

He is also the co-author (with J. Bernlef) of the important Dutch monograph Charles Ives (1969: De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam), where he writes of the Concord Sonata
In het kolossale stuk worden, misschien als in geen ander, de kwaliteiten van Ives' muziek verenigd. De schitterende paradoxen, de onverwachte associaties, de stilistische vrijheid worden samengevat in een geheel, waarin bij wijze van spreken een eeuw muziek wordt samengevat en daaraan tegelijk een niuewe inhoud geeft. (op. cit., p. 228)
(In this colossal piece, perhaps as in no other, the qualities of Ives's music are united. The stunning paradoxes, unexpected associations, stylistic freedoms are summarized in a single unity, in which in a manner of speaking a century of music is at once summarized and given a renewed meaning.)

Ives, in this great sonata — Lawrence Gilman, writing in the New York Herald Tribune after its 1939 premiere, called it "the greatest music composed by an American," and I could argue that it remains that — is inspired by his long and deep contemplation of the lives and work of four forces of the New England Enlightenment: Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau.

He "depicts" these subjects, and the site-specificity of the Concord in which they lived, with musical concepts and procedures. This isn't tone-painting, at least not often; you won't hear sound-portraits of carriages or steam-trains (though Thoreau's flute is portrayed realistically, wafting in quietly from offstage during the final movement). Instead, cultural associations most of us have been led to form with known musical sources — patriotic songs, hymn-tunes, Beethoven's Fifth, ragtime — are woven into a texture whose nearest artistic equivalent, I think, may be Molly Bloom's very different stream-of-consciousness soliloquy at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses.

De Leeuw quotes Lou Harrison (from the essay "On Quotation", published in Modern Music 23, Summer 1946) on this:
His aim is amazingly close to that of the best Chinese poetry (wherein observed fact is more expression than referred likeness) and of Chinese painting which is concerned with observation of nature, human nature as well as 'natural' nature." (Een opvatting die dicht staat bij de bekende uitspraak van John Cage: "to imitate nature in her manner of operation".) (op. cit., p. 145)
(A formula that recalls the well-known one of John Cage:)

The resulting sonata has the depth, luminosity, inevitable near-nostalgia of the great late Schubert sonatas, in which the huge Understanding of ineffable experiences and matters, so valiantly attempted by Beethoven in his own late sonatas and string quartets, manages to be expressed without the distraction of personal heroics or suffering. There have been other great piano surveys of huge vistas — those by Pierre Boulez come to mind — but no one else, that I know of, manages to train such explorations on specific (though panoramically specific) terrain. Perhaps only a man like Ives, between Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and on the margin of the European art-music tradition, could have achieved it.

I thought Marc-André Hamelin's performance, while persuasive and fluent, lacked passion. It seemed, well, bloodless. This in spite of a marvelous dynamic range, a careful attention to such details as the barely-heard "wrong-note" overtones hanging out of chords and clusters, and what seemed a perfect command of the (memorized) score. I didn't have mine on my lap, so I can't swear to it, but he seemed to have played every page, with perfect authenticity, an achievement I've rarely heard (if ever) even from pianists who had the pages in front of them on the rack.

A French-Canadian, born in 1961, he has recorded Haydn, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Alkan, the Brahms, Shostakovich, Shchedrin, Reger and Strauss concerti, and his own cycle of études in the minor keys, as well as jazz-inflected music by Swiss and French composers… all suggesting that his interest in Ives is logical as well as personal: perhaps the half-full Hertz Hall, or the relatively late hour, had something to do with what seemed to me a softened edge to an otherwise commanding performance.

1 comment:

rchrd said...

It was a wonderful evening. Too bad so few people attended. Perhaps that made it more intimate. But shame on you for revealing a well kept secret: that the best seats in Hertz Hall are in the center of the back row!