Swans Commentary » swans.com February 9, 2009  



Conductors' Guild Convention In New York 2009


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - February 9, 2009)   It was Thursday morning, January 8, 2009, and the Emperor's New Clothes were in full color and streaming. As a participant in the Conductors' Guild Convention in New York I was visiting an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic. The concert featured four works: one classical, one impressionistic, and two of the "bang on a can" school so invasive of too many concert halls for the last 60 years or so.

The classical work was the first of two Mozart piano concertos in F Major, this one the K.387a of 1782/3. Mozart composed and presented this concerto soon after his resettlement to Vienna just after being unceremoniously kicked out of the service of the Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg by the latter's lackey. Mozart's uppity sin was his dissatisfaction with his duties in Colloredo's orchestra as well as his unapologetic traveling about Europe seeking other and better employment. Those travels had started when the prodigy was about seven and had continued well into his twenties. But despite his best efforts and those of his teacher/manager/father, the celebrated violinist Leopold Mozart, to secure him the kind of position his prodigious talents would have seemed to warrant, that dream of a permanent position in the service of some distinguished prince never materialized. (Unless we make an exception for the largely ceremonial position of chamber music composer to the emperor to which the emperor Joseph II later appointed him in Vienna.)

At a point in mid-career the still-young Mozart had attracted the favorable attention of the son of Queen Maria Theresa of Austria. Years earlier Mozart had even performed at the court in Vienna as a Wunderkind and had even sat on the lap of a younger Queen Maria. But by the time Mozart had matured a bit and his itinerant musical travels had taken him to various parts of Europe, the Queen felt compelled to warn her son against getting mixed up with traveling, low-class, begging musicians, and nothing ever came of it. So Mozart established himself as a freelance composer/performer in the capital musical city of Europe, Vienna, thereby establishing the path that Beethoven and many Romantic 19th-century artists were to follow. In a series of subscription concerts in Vienna, he presented his later piano concertos, written for these occasions and performed by himself. He supplied his own cadenzas for these and the F Major's was one of those, and we heard it at the rehearsal.

The performer was pianist Olli Mustonen of Finland. Much as I would like to praise the suppleness and shading of his Mozart phrasing, which were indeed much in evidence, nevertheless I must report that never in my life have I heard such ugly noises coming out of an 88-key "piano shaped object" (thanks to pianist Richard Dowling for his tongue-in-cheek description of various pianos he's had to put up with on his tours of rural America.) Such banging and clattering sounding like straight-finger poking was definitely not what the Mozart style calls for. Was Mustonen trying to evoke his conception of a dry 18th-century fortepiano or harpsichord?

The explanation revealed itself in the course of the rehearsal as described below. I, who thanks to my concert-pianist wife, have been exposed to nothing but the Leschetizky-Horszowski-Essipoff-Vengerova heritage featuring the most liquid and mellifluous sounds the piano can produce, was highly alarmed in reading the biography of the artist at the extent of his discography and the seeming acceptance around the world of this distasteful acoustic experience. Even several pianist colleagues in the audience to whom I spoke were equally unbelieving of what they had just heard. And a trusted pianistic informant said to me on long-distance telephone that recent Russian visiting pianists had also displayed this sort of Philistine clunking.

No sooner than the Mozart had finished did Mustonen reseat himself as part of the ensemble which was to rehearse Oliver Messiaen's (1908-92) Oiseaux Exotiques of 1955/6 for solo piano and small orchestra. At that point the acoustical conundrum presented by the Mozart was resolved: Mustonen's banging and clanging fit perfectly into the sound world of Messiaen. Supposedly since both composers' names began with the letter "M" Mustonen must have felt no need to adapt a different style for Mozart from the one which fit the Messiaen of 200 years later so well.

Besides the piano, Messiaen's score calls for groups of winds and brass, and a large and colorful percussion section, but no strings. The strings would definitely have softened the aural effect, evidently not what the composer had in mind for this piece. The banging and clattering that Mustonen had prepared us for in the Mozart came to full plumage in Messiaen's work. Supposedly a lover and collector of bird calls, Messiaen, according to the annotations, had put dozens from his sound collection right into the very parts performed by the participants. But bless me, as I listened into this swirl of abrupt though colorful interjections from all sides, I wasn't able to discern or identify a single one. Perhaps with all those hard-edged brass sounds and all those percussionists clanging away perhaps it was more a steel-covered bird like an airplane the composer had in mind. It was more like a scene from Hitchcock than a stroll in the park.

The rehearsal had begun with a work by one of Messiaen's pupils from the 1970s, Tristan Murail (1947-), presently the Francis Goelet Professor of Music at Columbia University. The work was entitled Gondwana. Gondwana was the name of the mega-continent, which is said to have existed many eons ago and out of which our present-day continents split and drifted. And since the concluding work on the program was Debussy's La Mer the audience went on a spiritual, geographical, and musical journey from the continent with its birds to the ocean with its water in the time of one concert. Gondwana was explained by the annotator James Keller as having been commissioned by the city of Darmstadt and premiered there in 1980. This week's performances by the Philharmonic marked the work's US premiere. And the work showed its age indeed.

The name of the city of the premiere says it all. Darmstadt was the headquarters of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen and from there was sure to issue all the chaotic, clangorous nonsense which was to bedevil the concert world as well as my own career as a concertmaster for many decades in the name of musical modernism, thereby shrinking symphonic audiences by the millions. True, many an audience did sit and listen meekly to this stuff and for the sake of being considered up to date and au courant quietly admired the Emperor's New Clothes just as they did at Avery Fisher Hall the other day. But I doubt anyone could sing a tune from it.

My description of the Messaien would apply even more fully to the Murail in spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs. Here the added strings also added every cliché of "modernism" to the brew. The composer's credits displayed an equally long and alarming list of prizes, awards, more than one Prix de Rome and du Disque and distinguished positions in academe to make one wonder at the sanity of the musical world all those years. Finally in the 1980s came the musical Hegelian antithesis to modernism in the form of minimalism with its drawn-out, unchanging chords over which repetitions of the same fragments, varying ever so slightly, floated. Modern composers now have an enriched palette of musical choices with which to try to reach out to their audiences. And many, such as Adams, Glass, Corigliano, etc. have succeeded much better as a result.

The Emperor had a variation in his wardrobe in the form of a harmonic system invented and employed by Murail in this work called "spectral sympathetic" music based on the resonances of the overtone series. (Not "spectral" in the sense of "ghostly.") This style was described and illustrated at great length in the program book and was said to represent an antithesis to the 12-tone-on-steroids style of Boulez and Stockhausen. But again, bless me, I couldn't hear a vibration's worth of difference between the two supposedly opposing styles, both deserving of a place in my mind, in Marx's words, "on the dustheap of history."

Finally there appeared on the program another true masterpiece besides the Mozart -- the Debussy. To be sure many of the revolutionary sound colors, which Debussy invented for and applied in La Mer, found their echo and expansion in the other French and French-influenced works we had just heard. But what was missing in Debussy's epigones was the spiritual transcendence which Debussy rewarded us with when the chorale made its last recapitulation toward the close of the "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea," the third and final movement. That moment always reminds me of the parallel place in the finale of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony when the composer's prayer reaches to heaven triple fff in thanks for the passing of the storm. A similar moment of transcendence lifts our spirits at the end of Stravinsky's Firebird when all the spiritually frozen captives of the Kastchei return to life. Stravinsky never wrote another work to equal it.

The conductor for this concert was Ludovic Morlot, who sports an equally long list of prizes, accomplishments, recordings and appearances as his two collaborators on the program. His style struck me as efficient and unobtrusive and I hope he offered some inspiration to the Conductors' Guild members who were in his audience.

I will save further reports from the Conductors' Guild convention for my next article.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 9, 2009