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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/20/2004 -  
Anton Webern: Fuga a 6 voci
Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 3

Vienna Philaharmonic
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Eleven

Beyond the Time Barrier

“Time exists in events, rather than events in time.”

Arnold Zuboff

It is fair to state that in a discussion of the “tradition versus innovation” macro-argument, Johann Sebastian Bach and Anton von Webern would have been on opposite sides. What might be surprising, however, is that “old Bach”, who has come to be identified over time as the stereotypical, powdered wig, formulaic conservative, would be a strong proponent of revolutionary innovation while Dr. Webern, the bespectacled iconoclastic Trotskyite, would have sincerely taken up the position as the great curator of Western intellectual continuity. Bach had no notion whatsoever of “classical music”, producing instead a quotidian, albeit inspired, product designed neither to edify nor enrich, but rather simply to entertain (and feed his prodigious brood). Writing a cantata every week as a task, no more integral to his job performance than the cleaning of the dining tables of St. Thomas, the composer discarded the written music on Monday morning as yesterday’s news. Not even bothering to jot down instrumentation, he conceived of his craft as malleable and decidedly disposable once its potential for remuneration had faded. Further, the respectable exterior concealed a true revolutionary. Only a thinker totally outside of the box could have ever come up with the concept of tempering (and therefore modulation), the key to all of the wild experimentation of Webern’s celebrated colleagues.

In spite of what you may read in standard music history texts, the Second Viennese School was in many aspects a counterrevolutionary movement, grounded very deeply in the tradition of the past. This is perhaps easiest to appreciate in the music of Alban Berg, with its highly charged Romanticism, but applies even more elementally to the aesthetic of Schoenberg, after all the inventor of the dodecaphonic system, as rigidly cohesive and mathematical as any tonic-dominant progression of the rector of Leipzig. The more enigmatic Webern was indeed the most mindful of the past, writing his doctoral dissertation on the music of Heinrich Isaac, which predates that of Bach by some 200 years. What seems to cloud the issue for many is the erroneous assumption that the history of European music is a neatly arranged set of pigeonholes which, when laid out end to end, form a recognizable pattern of Hegelian synthesis from constricted to liberated (or, more pejoratively, from order to chaos), when, in actuality, it is a complex tapestry of silkworm holes wherein a tone or chord, a juxtaposition or movement may sound sweet in one era, but sour in another.

For Webern, the individual timbral moment was fascinating. With the benefit of historical perspective, the forbidden sounds of the parallel fifth or the consort of similar instruments of the distant past (rather than the more blended orchestra of his own era) sounded equally legitimate to this extremely thoughtful composer who could spend weeks on a note or beat before committing it to manuscript paper (Schoenberg once stated that, in order to break all of the rules of music, one must first study them in detail). As a result, some of his sparsest scores are the most colorful in the entire literature. As his lectures indicate, Dr. Webern was always mindful of the example of the past and conceived of his outwardly ultramodern pieces as natural steps in a glorious evolution. No one piece more forcefully illustrates this point than his reworking of the ricercare from Bach’s A Musical Offering, itself a toss-off from a theme by Frederick II of Prussia. It is conceivable that the 20th century composer spent a great deal more time on his version than did the 18th century one on his. Where Bach was improvising, Webern was agonizing.

Tonight’s concert was a maddeningly inconsistent affair. The Webern got off to a bad start, the silences, so vital for establishing the mood, ragged and imprecise, the attacks of the individual notes not of a classic sforzando technique. As the piece developed, the orchestra settled in, so that by the more Bachian ending they were on track, but the point of the exercise was lost in translation. The realization of the Pulcinella, a hastily substituted non-Viennese alternative to the announced Berg Three Excerpts from Wozzeck, was as tacky as the pasted piece of paper over the poster out front. This was a positively dreadful performance, out of tune, out of balance, out of rhythm, out of gas. The only bright spot was a gargantuan and synchronously correct sneeze from the audience just at the culmination of the trombone-dominated burlesque. The ”Eroica”, on the other hand, was splendid. Brisk and no-nonsense, in that contemporary “let’s finally pay attention to Beethoven’s metronome markings” style, now so in vogue, was not only extremely well played and balanced, but conveyed just the right degree of its own gravitas. The second movement was unabashedly funereal and meditative, the nature of the death of kings, and of our own, interwoven perfectly. In fact, this was the finest hour of the VPO on this particular trip, and they saved it, in the most revered show business tradition, for last.

Well, not quite. No annual visit of this great orchestra would be complete without some of their signature encores, and tonight we all found out just why Maestro Ozawa is the right fit for this otherwise homogenous band. Adopting a gliding style, he led the obligatory Strauss with such a glorious rubato, swimming in schmaltz, that we all followed in our hearts his dancing on the podium. There are so few musical experiences left for the concertgoer that are not generated from the cookie-cutter that, when an ensemble can still play in the style of a composer, then this must be treasured. One question remains: where did this Japanese man learned to waltz like this?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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