Photo of Carlos Kalmar: Melanie Burford for NPR.
"Mix and Match"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 6, 2011.
Spring for Music, a freewheeling new festival of North American orchestras, which unfolded in early May at Carnegie Hall, is premised on the idea that the programming of classical concerts isn’t nearly as lively as it could be. The average orchestral program presents a familiar configuration of familiar works—an overture, a concerto, a symphony, a new piece here and there—with no obvious intellectual goal. The mechanical reshuffling of canonical repertory creates the impression that classical music is all-purpose fabric that can be cut by the yard.
Thomas Morris, who long ran the Cleveland Orchestra and now serves as the artistic director of Spring for Music and also of the Ojai Festival, maintains a list of witless programs. The prize in his collection is a pairing of Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony—a blend of the fizzy and the sombre that makes about as much sense as a double bill of “His Girl Friday” and “The Seventh Seal.” My candidate for the worst program in modern history is one devised by Leonard Bernstein for a series of avant-garde concerts at the New York Philharmonic, in 1964. It seems almost malicious in intent, the two beloved showpieces practically inviting listeners to balk at what follows:
VIVALDI: “Fall” from “The Four Seasons”
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6
CAGE: “Atlas Eclipticalis” with “Winter Music”
FELDMAN: “Out of ‘Last Pieces’ ”
EARLE BROWN: “Available Forms II”
Strong playing can, of course, override dull or weird programming, and no amount of curatorial cleverness will redeem a subpar performance. But the typical season is a catalogue of missed opportunities. Great programs create a kind of invisible drama, establishing narrative connections between pieces that may or may not be directly related. They bring forth what E. T. A. Hoffmann, in his 1813 essay “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” calls “an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world.”
Such a realm seemed to materialize during a Spring for Music concert by the Oregon Symphony—the highlight of the festival and one of the most gripping events of the current season. Carlos Kalmar, a Uruguayan conductor of Austrian descent, who has been leading the Oregon since 2003, devised a program titled “Music for a Time of War.” He opened with Ives’s mystical miniature “The Unanswered Question,” whose unspecified query to the universe was here interpreted as “Why do people fight?” Then the ever-noble baritone Sanford Sylvan joined the orchestra to sing John Adams’s 1988 piece “The Wound-Dresser,” a setting of one of Walt Whitman’s odes to injured Civil War soldiers. (The work, which includes Whitman’s famous line “Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips,” was intended partly as an aids memorial.) The final piece before intermission was Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem,” a pacifist lament written in the early years of the Second World War. The second half of the concert was devoted to Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, a peculiarly violent statement by a composer popularly associated with pastoral moods.
Kalmar heightened his scenario by presenting the first three pieces attacca—that is, without pause. The Whitman of “The Wound-Dresser” walked in from the Ivesian mist; the brutal timpani strokes that open Britten’s symphony fell like cannonballs on the hospital ward. The orchestra fleshed out the concept with playing of controlled intensity, from the first hushed string chord of the Ives onward. A sense of fragile resolution at the end of the Britten was torn asunder by the scouring dissonances of the Vaughan Williams, which is from the early nineteen-thirties and anticipates horrors to come. The Oregonians’ furious rendition of that symphony would have been impressive in any context, but as the capstone to a brilliantly worked-out program it had shattering force. The Oregon violist Charles Noble did not exaggerate when he wrote on his blog, “We quite frankly nearly blew the roof off of the place.”
Spring for Music—which also hosted the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Toledo Symphony, the Albany Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Montreal Symphony—felt fresh at every turn. Of thirty-one composers featured, all but twelve are still living, and only four came from the pre-1900 era. The only nineteenth-century work in the festival was the Beethoven Fifth, whose arrival at the very end, on the Montreal program, seemed almost a sublime joke. There were no crowd-pleasing concertos. Alas, only the Montrealers, whose music director is the internationally celebrated Kent Nagano, drew a full house, even though no tickets in the series cost more than twenty-five dollars. In classical music, as in the rest of culture, fame drives the box office. Let’s hope that future editions of Spring for Music—the festival will run at least through 2013—spread the news that North America possesses dozens of excellent orchestras, and that on a good night any of them can outclass the so-called Big Five. The Oregonians proved the point by thoroughly upstaging the New York Philharmonic, which had played an unremarkable gala program at Carnegie a few nights earlier.
Not every ensemble capitalized on the occasion. The most contemporary-minded offering—the Orpheus’s program of six recently commissioned works inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos—was also the most frustrating: it ran long and was interrupted by tedious rearrangements of the stage setup. (Nothing saps drama like the sight of stagehands carrying chairs.) Yet the project drew quirkily soulful invention from such composers as Aaron Jay Kernis and Stephen Hartke, and a tour de force by Melinda Wagner, whose bracingly lucid “Little Moonhead” is modelled on the Fourth Brandenburg. The Albany Symphony ran into similar pacing problems with a program inspired by the Civil War era: a sequence of eight short pieces based on spirituals had a stop-and-start rhythm, the forms too short for individual voices to emerge. All the same, the Albany players made a rich-hued sound, especially in Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which ended the concert. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra had better luck in building a folk-tinged but not explicitly thematic program around Maria Schneider’s “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” a beguiling Brazilian fantasy tailored for the voice of Dawn Upshaw, who sang it with earthy ardor.
The Dallas Symphony devoted its concert to a single work: Steven Stucky’s “August 4, 1964,” a seventy-minute-long oratorio written in ambivalent memory of Lyndon Baines Johnson. On the date in question, Johnson learned that the bodies of three murdered civil-rights workers had been discovered in Mississippi; a few hours later, he responded belligerently to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In Stucky’s piece, formidable vocal and instrumental resources are marshalled to evoke, in a virtuosically eclectic style, the passions and flaws of a monumental figure. Jaap van Zweden, Dallas’s gifted director, led with diagrammatic precision. Fateful events also hung over the Toledo program, which smartly paired Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony with Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s 1977 musical play “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” a satirical attack on the Soviet practice of imprisoning dissidents in mental asylums. The orchestra, another potent, well-drilled group, drew an ecstatic response from more than a thousand home-town listeners, who had travelled for the event.
Montreal’s program, titled “The Evolution of the Symphony,” was in some ways the most far-out, its Beethoven coda notwithstanding. The first half offered another attacca collage, this one combining works ancient and modern: two canzoni from Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Symphoniae Sacrae,” Webern’s twelve-tone Symphony Opus 21, Stravinsky’s hieratic “Symphonies for Winds,” and, mingled among these, various of Bach’s Three-Part Inventions (or Sinfonias), as played by the brainy Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. In the hall, I had a quizzical reaction to this kaleidoscope of anti-symphonic symphonies. But when I listened again, online—WQXR has archived its broadcasts of the festival—the sequence seemed mysteriously fluid and logical. Such programming forces you to lean in rather than sit back: it demands alertness. The sensation should not be as rare as it is.
Previously: On the Road.