Sight and Sound
Avery Fisher Hall
Mikolajus Ciurlionis: In the Forest
Arnold Schoenberg: Accompaniment to a Film Scene
Alexander Scriabin: Prometheus, Poem of Fire
George Gershwin: Second Rhapsody
Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony
Dorothy Papadakos (color organ)
Petras Geniusas (piano), Alan Feinberg (piano)
Dessoff Choirs, American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor)
Before the era of talking motion pictures and television, audiences perceived music in a very different way. Orchestral music was a prime source for the conjuring of visual imagery and sights of the imagination were an integral part of the concert going experience. Leon Botstein, always interesting in his programmatic conceptions, presented a group of works designed to invoke those simpler times in the program Music and the Visual Imagination at Avery Fisher last night. The first piece was the lovely Sibelian tone poem Miske by the greatest of all Lituanian composers Ciurlionis who qualifies for inclusion in this pictographic montage because he was known in his lifetime primarily as a painter. As an artist of tonal color Ciurlionis was paramount in his depictions of natural phenomena and his major work Jura (The Sea) certainly deserves a place in the standard repertoire. The ASO played this marvelous pictograph with a loving tone, particularly gorgeous in the fine string section. As always, Mr. Botstein has unearthed another jewel and it is a privilege to be able to hear such rare musical treasures.
When Arnold Schoenberg moved to Hollywood in 1934 he was asked to write the score for the film The Good Earth which included a plague of locusts, a woman giving birth in the fields and a flood. "With all of that going on", the Viennese master asked, "what do you need me for?" Actually, Schoenberg had already composed a piece of film music in 1930 and divided it into three sections: Approaching Danger; Fear; Catastrophe. Also an accomplished painter Schoenberg imbued his Begleitungsmusik with visual imagery of an exaggerated nature. However, like another subtle satire of the period, Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, most of the public just doesn't "get it". Mr. Botstein did not emphasize the slapstick touches in the score (I wonder what his fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra would sound like) and presented the music without conveying its witty embellishments. The end of the Fear section raveled rather catastrophically as well.
Anyone who has a familiarity with a textbook encapsulation of the life and work of Alexander Scriabin knows that he meant his compositions to be accompanied with colored lights generated from his own keyboard invention, but how many of us have actually heard this music live with a color organ onstage? Again Mr. Botstein deserves high marks for preparing a performance of Poem of Fire that realized Scriabin's dream of an integration of color and sound. The first few minutes of the piece were very interesting, however once one grasped the concept that there were only about eight color combinations available, the lights became more of an irritation than an inspiration (I kept rooting for a reprise of violet as it was the only color that didn't badly glare). I hesitate to call the effect "dated", rather let me say that it was charmingly naïve. After years of multimedia and high tech light effects in the pop arena the ultimate purpose of the color organ became simply a distraction. However, it was interesting to muse on the stimulus in its historical context. Mr. Geniusas played the piano part and the Desoff Choirs sang the hearty vocalise but their full bodied vocal climaxes only served to render the lighting even more puny and disappointing.
There were many great film scores written in the early days of the talkies, however that to the Janet Gaynor turkey "Delicious" wasn't one of them. This piece of hack work by Gershwin featured a repetitious one-note motif meant to represent a riveter at work and at one sorry point there is the insertion of a "love interest" theme (it was just this sort of generic cut and paste job that Schoenberg was parodying in his film music). Not satisfied with the ten-minute excerpt from the film, Gershwin doubled the boredom and composed this Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra which has mercifully disappeared from the repertoire. Mr. Feinberg, fresh from his world premiere of the Ives Emerson Concerto, played the piano and to my ears the jazzy effects seemed awkwardly forced in the orchestra (but then again, I don't understand what all the fuss over Gershwin is about). It is in the nature of Mr. Botstein's musical archaeology that if one attends his performances often enough there will be the occasional piece for which one has no use. It is probably best if I recuse myself from reviewing this performance on the grounds of extreme apathy.
The masterwork of the evening was Paul Hindemith's majestic Mathis der Maler Symphony. There is a certain unemotional quality which prevents Hindemith's output from entering the higher echelon of German music, but it is exactly this barrenness that perfectly evokes the stark medieval world of the painter Matthias Gruenwald, the main character of his entartete opera first performed in Zurich because of the Nazi ban. The orchestral excerpts from the opera had a life of their own even before the larger work's premiere and have survived as the best known composition of this famous but neglected composer. Here Mr. Botstein's conception was spot on as the hollow sound of the hymn Es Sungen Drei Engel introduces us to a world of dispassionate musical aesthetics and the austere palette that created the Isenheim Altarpiece. Special praise should be given to the ASO brass who performed the final movement chorales with just the right touch of detachment.
As usual Mr. Botstein has left us something to contemplate. In the modern age when soap operas have replaced grand operas in the popular imagination and when visual imagery is handed to us in a manner which makes our participation passive at best, were we not better off in an era when the visuals were provided by our own uniquely personal system of art direction and montage? We are certainly well off to have thinkers like Mr. Botstein programming events with such meticulous love and care.
Frederick L. Kirshnit