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Et tu, Leon?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/09/2003 -  
William Sterndale Bennett: Overture to Parisina
Franz Liszt: Tasso
Robert Schumann: Manfred

Concert Chorale of New York
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

The Greeks had a word for it. “Mousike” meant not only music but also poetry, dance and elementary education. The ancients recognized that the art of reaching the center of human emotion through language was similar to the methods employed in music. Just as poetry has its musical devices, such as alliteration and onomatopoeia, music has its poetic ones, including modulation, repetition, and the creation and manipulation of tonal color. Music has long been used as a descriptive medium, but it was only during the nineteenth century that a form was invented to showcase the story-telling qualities of what had been up to that time largely an abstract discipline.

The idea of “program music”, that is music which describes a particular event or scene, reached its zenith in the Symphony #6, the “Pastorale” of Beethoven. Here the composer, while protesting that the piece is purely absolute (“those damned cuckoos!”, Leonard Bernstein used to exclaim), provides a descriptive title for each movement which allows the listener to visualize what the composer had in mind. Phrases like “Jolly gathering of country folk” leave no doubt as to the content of the music. Going one step further, Beethoven explores the effect of nature on the human psyche, christening one movement “Happy, Thankful Feelings after the Storm”. Hector Berlioz refined the programmatic process in his Symphonie Fantastique, again providing titles for each movement which will guide the listener on his musical journey. Berlioz takes his hero and describes him in love, moving from the raptures of infatuation to a ball, an idyllic scene in the country, a march to the scaffold and a witches’ Sabbath. The beloved’s theme, the so-called idee fixe, appears in each movement and is metamorphosed, in the hero’s opium-colored vision, from a theme of beauty and love into a mocking and derisive rebuke. Throughout, Berlioz is engaged in story-telling and uses the poetic device of transformation to show the degeneration of the lovers’ relationship from purity and goodness into the depths of execution and Walpurgisnacht.

Berlioz’ good friend Franz Liszt was intrigued by the art of program music. He began to develop an aesthetic that would culminate in the invention of a new musical form. Liszt wished to tell stories descriptively without having to compose an entire symphony on the subject (although he did just that in essays on both Faust and Dante). Writing about one of Berlioz’ large programmatic works, the concerto for viola and orchestra known as Harold in Italy (significantly Byronic), Liszt declared that “…The programme has no other end than to make some preliminary allusion to the psychological motives that have impelled the composer to create his work and that he has sought to embody in it.” Liszt invented the “symphonic poem” or “tone poem”, a short piece which explores a state of mind of a character or describes an episode in that character’s life. He created twelve of these poems for the Weimar Orchestra and premiered them with that assemblage in the 1840’s and ‘50’s. A number of these tone poems are character sketches, including Mazeppa, Prometheus, Tasso, Orpheus and Hamlet. Some are overtly descriptive, like Hunnenschlacht, and some are purposefully vague, such as Orpheus or Les Preludes. The composer employs recognizable forms, such as the funeral march (Heroide Funebre), as well as mood pictures (Hamlet). Some are based on literary works and some on paintings. What they all have in common is an effort to describe a particular mood or event in a manner which uses the music as a giant paint box.

Liszt used the overtures of Beethoven as prototypes of his new art form. Beethoven composed overtures, such as Egmont and Coriolan, for presentation at the beginning of a performance of a play. His genius is his ability to foreshadow and express in musical terms the inner conflicts soon to be exposed by the characters. The violence in Coriolan or the struggle for liberty of Egmont is brilliantly encapsulated by the music. Several of Liszt’s tone poems are structured as overtures but, of course, in modern concert performance no play follows them. Prometheus, for example, describes the character’s suffering and eventual apotheosis and is the model for the twentieth century tone poem Death and Transfiguration. Tasso was actually also originally conceived as an overture to a performance of the Goethe play, telling of the hero’s suffering of earthly injustice and his glorious fame in death. It was during its revision process that Liszt experienced his epiphany: the following drama was superfluous and redundant. A new genre was born. As the centerpiece of this concert of the American Symphony Orchestra, “The Romantic Soul: Lord Byron In Music”, a nobly dramatic performance of the rare Liszt work was positively glorious. The ASO has never sounded better, enunciating the pathos, romance and eventual deification of the hero with remarkable clarity and depth of emotion.

Egmont is undoubtedly the thematic and structural inspiration for Schumann’s Manfred. In addition to the obvious melodic and dramatic similarities of the overtures, the works as a whole have parallel performance histories of virtual neglect (not surprisingly, the only live version of the complete Beethoven work that I have ever experienced was itself conducted by Maestro Botstein). This afternoon’s version was a staged realization of the blank verse drama, the separation of Schumann and Byron accomplished with the relatively simple but eloquent device of having the speaking parts declaimed in English and the singing intoned in German. Again the orchestra was superb, creating rapier-like tension in the overture and patiently waiting for their incidental music to appear in snippets. The singing seemed competent (more about this directly), even if the acting was a bit on the sophomoric side. The unique opportunity to experience this masterwork at all in any form resembling a totality was well worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, there was one major flaw in the production. Avery Fisher was decked out as if the day belonged to rappers, complete with gigantic racks of speakers and a studio mixing board in the midst of the crowd. Amplifying all of the singers and actors created a hollow, artificial tone for the proceedings, especially noticeable by contrast whenever the orchestra played. These little instrumental interludes of Schumann’s device, some as short as just one phrase, provided the only relief from the boombox mentality of the presentation. Not only was it impossible to evaluate any of the singers (or the vocal quality of the actors), but, much more insidious and cheapening, the timbral quality of the pitches themselves was irritating and severely compromised. This is precisely why the New York City Opera has fallen from grace in recent years and many of us who care passionately about the future of classical performance recoil at the very thought of this type of “music at the Walmart” aesthetic. It would be especially disappointing if Mr. Botstein, certainly one of the most well-respected musicians in New York, was lured into the opposing camp.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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