By The Ocean Of Time
Bela Bartok: Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Benjamin Pasternack and Randall Hodgkinson (pianos)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)
“Berlioz does not try to be pleasing and elegant; what he
hates, he grasps fiercely by the hair; what he loves, he
almost crushes in his fervor.”
Robert Schumann, reviewing the Symphonie
fantastique for Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, 1835
The Symphonie fantastique was premiered in 1830 and yet when Gustav Mahler presented it at a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1898, it was considered too ultramodern and cacophonous for the gentle ears of a Sunday afternoon audience. It is ever thus and one of its most endearing qualities is that it still sounds rebelliously fresh in the 21st century. Januarian in nature, it actually looks back musically to the middle ages, an era where combinations of instruments were not designed for comfortable harmony but rather disturbing discord, where the ideal sonorous coupling was not pretty but rather abrasive. It is this hint of the consort rather than the orchestra which makes this incredibly colorful piece the most successful candidate for the period instrument movement and a shocking performance emphasizing this Hieronymus Bosch acoustical universe (cf. the John Eliot Gardiner) is the most eloquent proponent for a total re-examination of the modern orchestra and its essentially palliative acoustical design. Berlioz, the George Washington Carver of composers (if not the Dr. Frankenstein), spent an entire career grafting and cross-pollinating differing sounds to produce new and exciting hybrids (think of the piffaro section of Harold). Music wasn’t just an occupation for Berlioz, it was his passion. Like a painter whose body is covered in drips and dabs of color, this Byronic embodiment of the spirit of Romanticism found his greatest joy when released to play in the fields of the percussion section. The orchestra was for Berlioz what the movie studio was for Orson Welles: the best set of toy trains a boy could ever have.
The composer was six days shy of his 27th birthday when this revolutionary work debuted and was thus then alive two fewer years than Seiji Ozawa has now been associated with Boston (even Ted Williams didn’t stay there that long). In an age of jet-setting conductors taking music directorships at orchestras which require their presence for as little as four performing weeks a season, this degree of longevity marks him as the Mengelberg of the new fin-de-siecle. Pity then that this marriage that produced so many magical evenings, recordings and global tours should end so acrimoniously. I am sure that maestro, rejuvenated by his courageous decision to embark on essentially an entirely new career in the opera house, is looking primarily forward to Vienna and yet, whenever he, or those of us who chronicle these events, look back, it is hard not to focus on incidents of petulance (his decision to take the BSO to Asia one Christmas deprived the Brahmins of their beloved Nutcracker), insubordination (heir apparent James Levine has already fought with the players who don’t want to spend additional rehearsal time on difficult works), eulogy (one New York critic all but declared this orchestra finished a few years ago), and political pettifoggery and scapegoating, abetted by a scavenging press, with the faint but unmistakable aroma of racism (the whole Tanglewood mess, when it became painfully apparent that Seiji had never been part of the “good ol’ boy” network). New Yorkers can take solace from the fact that Carnegie Hall has consistently provided a refuge for Ozawa from all of his troubles up north and can savor the historical significance of this, his last appearance on 57th Street as the ambassador of a generally unappreciative community.
This arrangement of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was given its world premiere here at Carnegie with the Bartoks as soloists and another great Hungarian master, Fritz Reiner, as the conductor. With the parts for the two keyboards and battery transplanted virtually intact, what does the orchestra do? Actually, very little. In fact, the inclusion of the full ensemble writing only dilutes the primitive feel of the piece, the obbligato only fashioned as another of the destitute composer’s remunerative schemes doomed to failure. An odd sort of presentation for a farewell performance (Seiji has already done his Mahler 9 here with the Saito Kinen Orchestra), the reading was rather lukewarm, the playing of the principles missing a good deal of the pointillism of the original savage score. The firm of Ozawa, Pasternack and Hodgkinson all positioned squarely with their backs towards the audience, the crowd always seemed slightly shut out of the music, as if there were something more going on up there than we could either see or hear (not to mention that the antiphonal nature of the piano writing would have been more apparent in a more traditional side-by-side configuration), and yet, no matter how we strained, we could neither quite see nor hear over this rear echelon. It seemed at the interval that Maestro’s farewell might come a cropper.
But the Berlioz was a wonderful performance, vibrant and vital, colorful and celebratory. Unabashedly modern, the overall sound of the Boston Symphony (supposedly the area wherein Ozawa has been most deficient according to his critics) is impressively full and polished, healthy and opulent. The first section exhibited in well-defined and glowing terms its subtitle (reveries, passions) with a crispness and smart degree of togetherness rare in an American ensemble. The second movement was the highlight of the evening, a sweet swirl of a petticoat an inch above the ballroom floor (it should be remembered that waltzing in 1830 was still extremely scandalous) that revealed many often hidden inner voices in the luminous strings. The middle of the piece was the weakest: the scene in the country flagged a bit and, inexcusably, the condemned man’s march was shorn of all of its repeats, leaving the movement a mere bleeding chunk bagatelle that set askew the entire balance of the composition.
However, the Witches’ Sabbath was magical, a stark contrast of majesty and mockery (one can hear why Mahler wanted to introduce this piece to Vienna). Ozawa was especially adept at bringing out the color in the inner strings, the violas mysterious and spectral even before playing percussively with their bows, the swirling of the tutti at the sonic forefront, displacing the melody of the winds and brass as the central musical idea, like a great performance of the Valkyries’ Ride. The interior propulsion was insistent in this reading, making this an ideal Berliozian recreation: superbly kaleidoscopic and yet masculine and sinewy. The orchestra, having been through Hell and back with their departing leader, refused to stand after the initial curtain call, leaving their maestro to bask in the sincere warmth of a prolonged standing ovation. There was a surprising lack of press coverage for this historic event (many of my colleagues apparently already sated on the victim’s carrion), leaving the little general’s valedictory parade disappointingly under-heralded.
Popular sentiment in Boston during World War I led to the imprisonment as an enemy alien of their great German-born conductor Karl Muck. Although Seiji Ozawa cannot claim this level of mistreatment, the image of him departing like Anthony Hopkins as Nixon waving goodbye sticks in the mind’s eye. Damned for many years by faint praise, ultimately he deserved better.
Frederick L. Kirshnit