Your Lying Eyes

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04 April 2009

Music Review

If you are uninterested in my opinion of the performance by the New York Philharmonic of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony last evening, please move on. Otherwise, I welcome your indulgence.

The performance was led by Charles Dutoit. The first half featured Stravinsky's Concerto for Chamber Orchestra and Prokofiev's G-minor Violin Concerto with Lisa Batiashvili, soloist. Both works, while composed in the thirties, are safely tonal. I used to like (or thought I liked) the modern, atonal works I'd hear - at least appreciating the musicianship I'd witness - but I've since lost all patience with them. It now seems the height of self-indulgent, snobbery. No doubt this merely reflects my ignorance-cum-aging intolerance, but in the category of no one is always wrong, I have to agree with Stalin: the listener is flabergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free and drown again in the din, the grinding, the squealing. To follow this music is difficult, to remember it impossible.

But these two works are quite followable and memorable. The Concerto for Chamber Orchestra pays rather obvious tribute to the Brandenburgs - one can hear little snatches of them throughout - with its playful, vigorous exposition laid out in fugal strands and tight ensemble playing. The Prokofiev violin concerto was a great showcase for the young violinist (and one of Uncle Joe's fellow Georgians), though I confess I lack the expertise (and familiarity with this work) to judge her playing. It's a beautiful piece, wonderfully orchestrated, and Dutoit had the Philharmonic playing in perfect balance throughout.

So to provide some balance to these two clever, savory pieces, the Philharmonic presented Tchaikovsy's Fifth in Act 2 - the audience, having eaten all their veggies, would be rewarded with a rich, fat, scrumptious dessert. And why not - we pay good money for these seats, let's indulge our guilty pleasures once in a while.

When Tchaikovsky followed his Fifth Symphony with his Sixth, he can be truly said to have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. Tchaikovsky's Fifth is a sentimental favorite of mine - it introduced me to classical music. My parents had this in their collection and one day in sixth grade I decided to play it, and was instantly hooked. If you're going to get hooked by a work, this is the one because the Fifth is one long string of hooks - barbed might be the right term for it. It is so brimming with recognizable thematic material you might think you're listening to some posthumous compilation of favorite material culled from a lifetime's work. The themes comes at you from every direction - from the funereal to the martial dramatically transitioning into lush, brazen romance, followed by a show-tune ballad then a folk dance. It is in short one big gorgeous mess of a symphony, and Dutoit payed it fitting tribute by conducting one big rollicking mess of a performance.

Because the piece itself is so in-your-face, conductors will try to throttle back a bit as best they can. I heard the Philharmonic play it under Leonard Slatkin some years ago. Slatkin used to be the orchestra's principal guest conductor, so I'm familiar with him but only conducting this orchestra, but based on that alone I consider him the Greatest Conductor Ever. His interpretation of the Fifth provided a very tight, restrained though luxuriant performance that was to my ears pitch perfect. In his recording with the Chicago Symphony, Daniel Barenboim pulls way back, playing the orchestra off the work's most subtle effect - silence - in a way I'd imagine hard to replicate live.

But Dutoit apparently said "Screw that." No doubt the precision of the first two works was enough work for the limited rehearsal time. If these philistines in the audience want their Tchaikovsky's Fifth, then let's give it to them. And they did - there was no holding back, no worries about over-playing. The orchestra's principals, whose ensemble playing in the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra was so mesmerizing, now were determined not to let any other players outshine them. Despite the near ear-shattering volumes the orchestra managed to reach at times (the EU would not have approved), Philip Myers, the brilliant and prodigious horn player, made certain he would always be heard. Indeed, the symphony provides a number of showcase moments for the principal players that typically aren't so prominent but last night they all got their chance to shine. And while the playing was generally poorly synchronized and out of balance (the brass was absolutely overwhelming while the strings played at full tilt throughout), the individual efforts were impressive throughout.

And I had an absolute blast - don't mistake my comments above for snarkery - I'm just reporting facts - it doesn't mean I did not enjoy every minute of the performance, however unbridled and histrionic if might have been, and I was not alone. At times during the performance, I would think "This is such a mess. I wonder how the audience will react?" No worries there - the seats erupted as soon as the last blaring chord faded in an orgasmic ovation. After all these years, I still fool myself into thinking that the typical attendee at these concerts has any clue what's going on - that surely I sit amidst a sea of very knowledgeable patrons who would chuckle disdainfully at my limited expertise. In reality I'm probably at the 90th percentile in this crowd as far as musical knowledge goes, with the top 5% far exceeding my knowledge and the bulk of those in the bottom 80% knowing next to nothing - a flat then steeply climbing exponential curve. Of course the most knowledgeable are no doubt students going for free or a deep discount. Meanwhile the rest of us paid good money for our seats, so why shouldn't we be treated to a rousing rendition of an old favorite? Uncle Joe would have been pleased.



Blogger agnostic said...

No doubt this merely reflects my ignorance-cum-aging intolerance

But as you point out, you had pretty good taste in 6th grade.

The personality trait Openness to Experience peaks around age 19-20 and steadily declines as you look at younger or older people. Because you're in the "I'll consider anything" mindset during your 20s, you give affirmative action benefits to bad stuff.

You may not have been a classical music buff in high school, but what appealed to you was probably good -- not atonality, not abstract expressionism, not Finnegan's Wake. Your objection may not have been more sophisticated than "that's gay," but still.

That's why middle-aged or elderly men can enjoy a beautifully landscaped mini-golf course with his pre-college aged sons, while 20 and 30-somethings would rather hang out in some Modernist wine bar that feels like an airport terminal.

April 04, 2009 4:32 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Modern opera is the worst. Again, because I "liked" it some years back, my father in law insists on giving me tickets from his Met subscription for the modern ones. Hearing operatic voices singing atonally is particularly trying.

April 04, 2009 7:17 PM  
Anonymous erob said...

No doubt this merely reflects my ignorance-cum-aging intolerance

Popular music isn't helping you any. I blame the mtv for lowering my generations musical expectations.

while 20 and 30-somethings would rather hang out in some Modernist wine bar

Does anyone actually like going to those places? Women go because they want to seem sophisticated and they want a man who can afford them. Men go because there are women there. Perhaps the gays legitimately enjoy it though.

April 04, 2009 7:35 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Does anyone actually like going to those places?

Wait a few years and see what happens:)

April 05, 2009 12:06 AM  
Blogger Figgy said...

Isn't it funny how we attribute great appreciation and analytical powers to a classical concert-going New York audience? In reality, a lot of those people are probably there because, well, they're the New York area intelligentsia and dammit, that's what NYA intelligentsia do!

Just for kicks I checked out the NYT review of the 5th that you saw. Here it is:

Mr. Dutoit also offered Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, stressing the big effects, with mostly compelling results. Philip Myers, the principal hornist, delivered the big tune in the second movement deftly, and Stanley Drucker, the principal clarinetist, was deeply expressive throughout. The strings, missing several principals, still sounded great, especially the low strings at the start of that second movement.

"The big tune in the second movement" !! That's the best the NYT music critic could come up with? I'm no Sir George Grove but I'm pretty sure I could come up with something better than that. Sounds like something I'd hear at a cocktail party in regard to a John Phillip Sousa work. (no disrespect meant to Mr Sousa who was a fine composer in a generally underappreciated style) Your review was definitely more thoughtful and far more entertaining, although you'd never make it writing for the Times with that self deprecating style of yours.

Interesting that you describe the 5th and 6th as the ridiculous to the sublime. I find the 6th fully as hedonistic as its predecessor but feel free to expand on that one. I once had a music theory teacher who was a conductor of some note in the New York area. He promised to pay 10,000 bucks to the person who attended a "big time" live performance of the 6th where the audience didn't go wild after the 3rd movement, thinking it was the finale. Still haven't personally heard of any performance where that didn't happen which certainly speaks to the thought that New York audiences are just as dopey as any.

April 05, 2009 10:34 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Figgy - thanks.

Where the Times' reviewer said "Mr. Dutoit also offered Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, stressing the big effects..." I think that's in line with my hearing of it as throwing all caution to the wind in playing it. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that his reference to the "bit tune" is a bit of tongue-in-cheek recognition of its ubiquitous familiarity. In retrospect, though, I have to agree that the playing of the second movement's first figure was the highlight.

As far as the sixth, "sublime" may be going too far, but it is Tchaikovsky and everything is relative:) Generally I find the 6th to be more thematically restrained, to have much richer orchestral textures and more interesting thematic development than the 5th (but not as much fun). Yes, the 3rd movement doesn't fit the above - perhaps he felt without it the work would be too somnolent or lugubrious, but it does kind of just stick out there.

The audience did manage to avoid applauding between movements of the fifth, though there was a smattering of applause after the first movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

April 05, 2009 11:15 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

John Denver lifted the opening notes for his song "You Fill Up My Senses" from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

I suspect most symphonic concerts before the middle of the 20th Century sounded rather like this one -- under-rehearsed and show-offy. It probably made concert reviewing more meaningful than today, when so many performances are technically perfect.

April 08, 2009 1:15 AM  

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