Ruzicka, Poulenc, Schumann
Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar
Haydn, The Creation
Krzysztof Penderecki is one of those composers known more for his reputation than for his actual music. I seldom see his music in any programs, and indeed, I don’t recall ever hearing his work live in a program myself.
This morning he brought his second violin concerto to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, for a performance by the Mozarteum Orchestra and soloist Leticia Moreno. He conducted himself.
His music is reminiscent of warmed-over Schostakowitsch, and in the case of this particular work, Schostakowitsch’s cello concerto. Maybe less-edgy and less-original, but nevertheless quite pleasant enough structured as variations morphing without breaks for about forty minutes. Moreno made her Salzburg debut last Fall with some spectacular playing in front of the Cadaqués Orchestra, and it helped Penderecki that he had her to interpret today. She handled all of the tones he required, compfortable in every idiom from lyrical to frenetic, with a wide range (indeed, she beautifully hit notes I thought were above the violin’s register). She did not have the biggest sound today, sometimes being overwhelmed by the orchestra in the larger passages. The audience really would have appreciated an encore (unfortunately we did not get one).
After the intermission, Pederecki returned to the podium for Beethoven‘s seventh symphony. He chose to do this with a greatly-reduced orchestra, barely larger than a chamber group. If his own concerto had been a mellowed version of Schostakowitsch’s, then his Beethoven 7 was a mellowed version of Beethoven 7. The performance lacked the necessary exuberance, except maybe in the slow movement (which he performed too quickly and with too much staccato). Penderecki mostly used only one arm at a time when he conducted, with brief overlaps as he shifted from one to the other every few measures. I did not quite get the concept, and the orchestra may not have either (certainly the horns were a total mess of confusion in the first movement, although they got their bearings as the symphony went on).
I would not normally post a review of a rehearsal, particularly one for a world premiere performance where the orchestra and composer were still fine-tuning ahead of the first concert. But for this rehearsal, I have decided to make an exception (albeit delaying the public posting for a day until after the world premiere has taken place). This is because I realized I am not actually reviewing the performance.
Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices is about to have its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a three-concert set in Philadelphia this week and then at Carnegie Hall in New York next week (along with works by Bernstein and Mussorgsky, not rehearsed this evening).
On an intellectual level, I’m glad I went. On a musical level, there’s nothing to say. It’s an especially awful piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to Carnegie Hall – a Philadelphia audience might have fun with some of the inside jokes and immediate cultural references, but New Yorkers will lose that dimension, exposing that there is nothing else there.
Machover crowd-sourced his thing-a-ma-bobby. He cobbled the inane text (partly sung, partly pre-recorded voices from around the city played over speakers) together from various sources, including on-the-street interviews (or in one case an interview with a short-order cook making a cheese steak). Some of it came from snippets of documents like the US Constitution (written in Philadelphia). The text contained juxtaposed words or phrases often presenting inside jokes; recent events ranging from the Pope’s visit that took place while Machover had begun to work on this, to the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl earlier this year complete with the play-by-play announcer’s calling of the final play of that game; and some truly dreadful poetry including one section that began: “My house is full of black people.”
At a pre-rehearsal discussion, Machover answered an audience member’s question about what will happen with this piece after this initial set of concerts, explaining that Haydn had written his London symphonies and they became part of the standard repertory. But Haydn’s “London” symphonies got the name because he wrote a set of them there (or at least for premieres there), not because they have anything specifically to do with London ranging from insider knowledge to recent (from 200 years ago) football championships. Haydn just wrote good music.
But intellectually, learning how Machover constructed this work (wandering around Philadelphia recording people and sounds, while getting to know the city – he himself is not from Philadelphia), and then hearing a full (final) rehearsal in which the composer and Nézet-Séguin had to make finishing touches and to see how to make it function in real life, was worth the several hours I spent in the Kimmel Center. As a native Philadelphian, I also had fun with parts of the text.
Four different choral groups, apparently mostly drawn from a good selection of inner-city kids, sang the words. For them, this was an opportunity to rehearse with the best orchestra in the United States and under one of the best conductors of the 40-ish generation, and then to perform live at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall (and of course at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an undistinguished venue but likely exciting for these kids). This was heartening to see. What a great experience for these kids – and maybe they’ll even stick around for some real music.
Oh, yes… the music. It was mostly tonal, and required performance on instruments (including voice) despite many voice-overs, but I’m not sure it was music. It had no discernable structure or direction (not just a factor of the strange text, but a fundamental problem with the construction itself).
What did it really remind me of? I attended a bizarrely experimental elementary school in Philadelphia. On a typical day, we walked up and down the streets of this city exploring different neighborhoods (and once a week they bussed us city kids out to a working farm). We had no formal classes – maybe the closest we came to a recognizable class period was music, which they taught us using the educational system developed by Carl Orff. I could easily see my elementary school collaboratively writing this piece – both the words and music – and then performing it for our parents on our recorders and xylophones (and singing along) in the school’s “Multi-Purpose Room.” Our parents would have had fun (or at least would have pretended to). And then after that performance there would never – ever – be any reason to perform our piece again.
Philadelphia Voices should share the same fate. Creative? Sure. But place- and time-specific, and otherwise with nothing of substance.