John Joubert’s musical language is original yet familiar, subtle yet direct. Firmly rooted in tonality, his harmonic vocabulary is highly sophisticated and personal, and he seems to have a particular knack for energising traditional harmonies through clashes, bi-tonality and harmonic extension. Joubert’s Jane Eyre is the work of a melodist of the highest order who writes for the voice with profound understanding. In Jane Eyre’s musical landscape, all the parts are full of purpose and meaning; a tapestry of counterpoint which serves to complement and enrich the sung drama.
Transforming a great novel into a great opera poses many challenges, but the greatest of these is the fact that musical and literary forms work so differently. The 19th Century novel tends to start at “in the beginning” and to finish at “The End;” it is no accident that some of the most successful adaptations of Brontë’s Jane Eyre have been those for serialised television. Most musical forms, particularly instrumental ones, tend to start at the beginning and finish at a transformed version of the beginning. Repetition, development, restatement and transformation are the building blocks of musical form. Wagner was perhaps the first composer to understand this tension between narrative, linear literary form and architectural, developmental musical form in opera. Part of what makes a vast work like Tristan und Isolde so coherent and satisfying is the extent to which it works symphonically as well as dramatically.
In Jane Eyre, John Joubert and librettist Kenneth Birkin have managed the crucial balance between storytelling and structure about as well as it can be handled. Joubert’s Jane Eyre, while spiritually true to Charlotte Brontë, dispenses with much of the expository and descriptive content of the novel and focuses intently on the emotional journey of the protagonist as viewed through six pivotal scenes in her life.
Part of what makes the opera so compelling, apart from its staggering beauty, is Joubert’s mastery at balancing the levels of musical structure in the work. Each scene forms a sort of self-contained symphonic whole, while both acts are unified within themselves yet distinct from each other. Each act finds cohesion through the theme which opens it- neither of which is ever sung. In the case of Act 1, the mysterious opening in the viola, an enchanted musical “Once upon a time…” if there ever was one, achieves a kind of fierce monumentality at the climax of Jane and Mr. Brocklehurst’s contentious duet at the send of Scene 1, then a bleak stentorian savagery in Rochester’s despairing aria at the end of Scene 2, before being transformed into music of mystic tenderness at the opening of Scene 3. When we hear it in the closing bars of Act 1 we sense the completion of not only the first part of the musical journey, but the end of the first part of Jane’s life.
The parallel theme of Act II is the march heard first in the violas, which soon reveals itself as the music of Jane’s wedding procession- music of hope, happiness and promise. As the wedding begins to collapse into humiliation and shame, Joubert changes this hopeful march into a despairing horn obbligato as Rochester confesses his previous marriage, then it later becomes a real funeral march at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3. Joubert underlines the organic unity of the score by illustrating this theme’s kinship with the main theme of Act 1 as soon as the 3rd bar of Act 2, when he inverts it and changes its rhythm to straight crotchets from dotted rhythms- it’s only two notes different from what we’ve heard before. This inverted form of the wedding march becomes the backdrop to much of the turmoil of the catastrophic wedding scene, heard as the agitated ostinato which underpins the section which begins when Rochester declares “She lives, but is not, was not and will never be a wife to me” and later forms the sort of waves which sweep this tumultuous scene to its bleak conclusion while the congregation screams out “Bigamy!”
There are several other fully fledged themes which Joubert handles deftly throughout the opera, such as the theme of Jane’s longing, which we hear for the first time just after she sings “visions, long cherished dreams, become at last reality” in the first scene, and the complex web of themes and motives which make up the music depicting Bertha’s madness, fire and destruction. We hear this material first at the beginning of the second scene as Bertha lights fire to Rochester’s bedroom, and later as Rochester tells of her death and the fire which consumed Thornfield at the beginning of the opera’s final scene, but Joubert also deploys these motives in the background during Jane and Rochester’s first love duet. Jane says “Think of your bride, you are not free.” She is referring, of course, to Blanche, whom she assumes to be betrothed to Rochester, but the re-appearance of Bertha’s music gives the moment a sinister double meaning.
Beyond these longer and more involved themes, there are a complex web of shorter, Wagnerian Leitmotifs. One of the most important is the “Jane” motive, which Rochester sings three times at the climax of both Act 2 Scene 2 and Act 2 scene 3 (these are the only times in the opera this motive is sung, although it weaves its way through almost the entire score in the orchestra). One of the most interesting themes in the opera might be called the “love,” or “love’s sorrow” theme, which we first hear Jane sing near the beginning of the second scene to the words “demon shadows grow.” It is a heart-rending evocation of the pain of love, soon transformed into hopeful radiance when Jane sings “He is my light!” Joubert has fashioned a love theme capable of expressing all the nuances of this most complex emotion.
Jane Eyre is a work of mirrors- characters are illuminated by the ways in which they’re reflected against their counterparts, and scenes are given weight and meaning by the way in which they counterbalance each other. Each act ends with a love duet, and these two duets form one musical mirror as the relationship of the two main characters is fundamentally reset. In Act 1, it is Rochester who utters the pivotal words, “My bride is here!” in full throated fortissimo (followed by what has to be one of the most gorgeous passages in any opera). In the final scene, Jane almost whispers “Choose her who loves you best,” using the same music, but now suffused with tenderness and compassion. As she does so, Joubert weaves together the two narrative themes of the opera- with the “Once upon a time” music of Act 1 returning tenderly in the strings and the wedding/funeral march of Act 2 returning in the horn. We sense that at last, the journey is coming full circle as the conflicting forces in their lives which have separated them have now been reconciled in an act of love and forgiveness. I would be hard pressed to think of another duet which more poetically evokes the rapture of newly discovered love more touchingly than the one which ends Act 1. The opera’s final scene, serves a dual purpose- in addition to depicting the reconciliation of the lovers, Joubert uses this final duet as a space in which to resolve the opera’s musical tensions. In a sense it functions in much the same way as a symphonic recapitulation, as musical ideas from across the score return and combine in newly stable ways. It feels very true to life in the way in which love now comes across as richer, more complex and more troubled, but ultimately deeper than in Act 1, which in retrospect looks like a sort of innocent bliss. The very ending of the opera is magical, Mahlerian in its transcendent yet wounded peace.
In stark contrast to Jane’s duets with Rochester are those with the controlling Mr Brocklehurst in the opera’s first scene, and the equally controlling, messianic St. John Rivers in the opera’s penultimate scene. Where the two duets with Rochester show Jane’s capacity for love and partnership, these show her need for independence and agency. The scene with Brocklehurst unfolds as something like a set of variations on the theme that accompanies his arrival, another sort of funereal march, but ends with a reassertion of Jane’s music. A similar thing happens at the climax of the scene with St. John. After hearing Rochester call to her, Jane sings of her love and her determination to face the challenges that seeking out Rochester will bring. It is one of the most passionate episodes in the opera, as the “Jane” theme sings out in several permutations above the soaring climax. St John is reduced to impotent rage as he mutters “You are deceived: I heard nothing,” but Jane knows her own mind, singing as she did of her love for Rochester “He loves me still, he needs me” with the “love’s sorrow” theme returning all its serpentine complexity.
The opera ends in A major, and without weighing the reader down with technicalities, it is worth noting Joubert’s subtle, symbolic and highly effective use of key throughout the opera. The tritone relationship between this final A major, associated throughout the opera with light and love, and the E-flat major which ends Act 1 and which also underpins much of the scene between Jane and St. John gives some sense of the magnitude of Jane’s journey. There are also certain distinctive harmonic progressions which recur throughout the opera which help give the largescale form a sense of structural rhythm.
Any discussion of the music of Jane Eyre would be incomplete without mention of Joubert’s mastery of the orchestra. Joubert stipulates an orchestra of single woodwind (each player doubling one additional instrument, so flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, clarinet doubling bass clarinet and bassoon doubling contra bassoon), single brass (horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba), two percussionists, timpani, piano, organ and a small string section. In the case of the current performance, that makes for an orchestra of just 35 musicians. With these rather modest forces, Joubert has created a score of staggering colouristic variety and astonishing power. For instance, the final pages of act one, with flute and cor anglais forming one pair and bass clarinet and contra bassoon another, each pair moving in winding parallelism, their phrases ending with citrus trills, must be one of the most stunning and original instrumental passages of recent decades, made all the more miraculous by the way in which it evolves out of melodic and motivic threads Joubert has been developing throughout the scene. Joubert’s orchestra is capable of unleashing the full grandeur and power of a massive symphonic ensemble, but Joubert’s smaller forces give it not only greater transparency, but a slight hint of lean tensile strength, shorn of the comfortable cushion of a huge string section. Joubert’s use of the orchestral piano is also inspired. It plays much the same role that a harp might have in a Romantic score, but also serves as an able supplement to the percussion section when called for, and gives Jane Eyre’s soundworld a slightly steelier edge. This is yet another example of the way that throughout Jane Eyre, Joubert has been careful to avoid maudlin sentimentality, while reaching for the most powerful possible emotional and dramatic impact.
— c. 2017 Kenneth Woods
The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra have announced plans for their 50th Anniversary Season, with a celebratory focus on familiarity, conservatism, convenience and conformity.
You’ve heard it all here before
“When we started thinking about how best to celebrate this special anniversary, our music director Cauze Perdue originally suggested we “push the boat out” with a season of memorable commissions and ambitious artistic projects” said MSO Executive Directore Piere Gruppedenken. “However, we soon realised this was the last thing on earth any of our patrons wanted us to do. We realised the best way to celebrate our 50th anniversary was to push the boat in: to offer the safest, most conservative, least “interesting” series of concerts we possibly can.”
More of the Same Old
“We’ve done a lot of market research to find out what our listeners want, and what they want is the “same old, same old”. What they want is conformity. We’re celebrating this milestone in the orchestra’s history by committing ourselves to be the most conservative orchestra this country has ever seen. ”
No Surprises. No shit.
“This isn’t just a one-off celebration,” said Gruppedenken. “This is a vision for a new kind of orchestra. A new kind of orchestra which will always be the same old orchestra. We are going to pick the 20 most popular symphonies, the 20 most popular overture’s and the 20 most popular concertos, book the 20 most popular soloists, and we’re going to cycle through those pieces and artists every 12-18 months for as long as the orchestra stays in business. Gone are the days when one of our listeners bemoans the fact that he or she has missed Scheherazade or the New World Symphony, because now we’ll be playing them again in just a few months. We used to strive to make every concert we did an unmissable event. It turns out people hated that. Our new advice to our patrons is “come or don’t come- it’s no big deal! That’s true visionary programming for the modern lifestyle.”
Come or don’t come- it’s no big deal
The MSO will also be changing the way they program the mini-festivals and single-composer cycles which have been such a mainstay of the orchestra’s programming in recent years. “We took a hard look at last year’s 8-concert Tchaikovsky Festival and realised it was chock full of shit that absolutely nobody wanted to hear. Manfred? Give me a break! And the Second Piano Concerto? Do you think there are even three people in Metropolitana who have any idea there is more than one Tchaikovsky piano concerto? No. Let’s face it, even the Pathetique is a morbid, miserable piece of shit. This year’s Tchaikovsky Festival will also be 8 performances, but only two programs. We’ve got one with the Fourth Symphony, the Violin Concerto and Romeo and Juliet, and one with Cappriccio Italien, the Nutcracker Suite and the Fourth Symphony. That way, nobody has to worry about missing the Fourth Symphony, which research says is the piece most likely to result in a standing ovation in the repertoire. All of our concerts from now on are going to end with standing ovations. It’s going to be great- no more soft endings to anything, ever.”
The only real innovation left is to stop innovating
The orchestra has also replaced “Explorations,” their well-regarded series of pre-concert talks with a series called: “Narrowing the Focus.” “The new pre-concert talk series will be a great way to help our listeners understand our approach to programming. Listeners will discover why the only Mozart symphony we play is the Jupiter, why the only Brahms work anyone wants to hear is the Academic Festival Overture and why we’re better off without Schumann.”
No Schumann. Ever.
The financial benefits of the new approach to programming are already being felt at MSO headquarters. “We’ve closed our accounts everywhere- all the rental places like Boosey and Hawkes and all the music suppliers like Lucks and EMS. We’ve also laid off our library staff. We’ve got all the music we’ll ever need in our library, and it’s all been bowed. We’re never again going to spend money on printed music at the MSO. If we don’t already have it, our audience doesn’t want it”
The best vision is no vision
The new artistic strategy has been warmly welcomed by the musicians of the MSO. “I’ve seen the list of the 60 pieces that will form the orchestra’s repertoire from now on, and I’ve known all of them backwards since I was 24” said principal trumpet player Lance Shredwell. “This new vision for the orchestra means I’ve been able to convert my practice room at home into a multimedia man cave. I don’t even have a shelf for my trumpets at home any more. I just leave them here at the hall, because I can’t see any reason why I’ll ever have to practice outside rehearsal again. It’s a life-changing thing for all of us.”
We already know how it goes
From the latest issue of Musical Opinion Magazine. My manifesto explaining the thinking behind the 21st C. Symphony Project. Subscribe to the magazine here.
“Composers don’t tend to write symphonies these days, they are mostly shorter orchestral pieces with titles.” said BBC Music Magazine editor Oliver Condy in a recent Guardian article on his magazine’s survey of the top 20 symphonies of all time.
As an orchestral conductor, the overwhelming majority of the concerts I conduct include at least one symphony. For me, the symphony is the most important and influential musical form of the last 225 years, and I’ve always felt that for symphony orchestras to have a future, the symphony must have a future. So it was that nearly two years before Oliver Condy made that statement, my colleagues in the English Symphony Orchestra and I had decided to do something to encourage composers to write symphonies.
It started when I was appointed Principal Conductor of the ESO in 2013-4. It felt like a big moment for me, and a time for the orchestra, which had endured nearly a decade of tribulations and challenges, to make a bold statement. I decided to commission a symphony from my friend and colleague Philip Sawyers to celebrate this new orchestral partnership.
Within a few months of speaking to Philip, the idea of commissioning a symphony had grown in my head- I was beginning to think about symphonies. The idea of commissioning a symphony seemed so powerful, so simple and so relevant, why should we stop at one? A big part of the ESO’s mission is and always has been to support the creation and dissemination of new and unknown British music, especially music that somehow doesn’t fall into the programming remit of other major new music champions in the UK like the BBC, the Huddersfield Festival or the London Sinfonietta. In particular, we seek to commission, perform and record new works for an orchestral audience. Music that engages, challenges and rewards an audience steeped in the language of symphonic music from Haydn to Tippett.
So- we would commission symphonies. It was decided. I whimsically thought that since notable symphonic cycles since Beethoven have tended to come in groups of nine, we’d start with our own cycle- nine new symphonies by nine different composers. The 21st Century Symphony Project was born- at least the idea of it.
It’s no great secret that over the last few decades we have seen a split between the audience for “New Music” and the audience for the broader range of most classical music. Throughout the 20th C., there was plenty of new (rather than “New”) music that entered the classical mainstream- perhaps more than in any other century, including now beloved works by Walton, Shostakovich, Barber, Sibelius, Gorecki and Adams. However, much of this repertoire has never quite been accepted as being authentically “New,” or fully of its time, or ours, while many older works by Berg, Varese and Schoenberg retain much of the same sense of challenge they held when they were written 80-90 years ago.
In the post-WW II climate, musical taste, originality and culture were largely measured in terms defined by the modernist movement. So it is that music which embodied a high degree of rhythmic and harmonic complexity, extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and structural abstraction came to be that which was accepted for decades as truly music of our times. I’ve spent a substantial portion of my career working in the world of post-Schoenbergian modernism, and this thread of musical history has given us a great body of works from composers like Boulez, Berio, Ligeti and countless others.
This music, which inspires loyalty, admiration and affection among many listeners (including me), has never gained widespread popularity among the general audience for symphonic concerts. This has often been ascribed to atonal music being “too demanding” or “too challenging” for fans of Brahms and Beethoven.
There is no doubt an element of truth in this. Listening to music is both an aptitude we are born with and an ability we can cultivate. Making sense of a Darmstadt-era modernist masterpiece requires the cultivation of new listening skills that one might never develop listening to tonal music. For many of us, the development of these new listening skills offers enormous rewards, opening up huge vistas of discovery.
With this in mind, the generally accepted view has been that the symphonic audience lacks the listening skills and musical knowledge to fully appreciate much music of the last 90 years, and so therefore, orchestras must find ways of drawing in listeners and making modern music more accessible and appealing. The most common, and by far least satisfying gambit for introducing symphonic audiences to challenging works is what orchestral musicians ruefully call the “shit sandwich,” in which a potentially incomprehensible new piece is squeezed between two universally popular warhorses. Such an approach serves nobody- not the composer of the new work, not the audience and not the orchestra. In the absence of an audience fully equipped to track an atonal musical narrative over a long time, orchestras have commissioned shorter and shorter pieces and done all they could to make them digestible to their audience, hence the modern scourge of works of less than ten minutes duration, laden with catchy titles, ingratiating programmatic outlines, and programme notes that often take longer to read than it takes to listen to the piece.
But even as some of us bemoan the lack of certain listening skills in our audience, we too often forget that much contemporary music, be it modernist or minimalist, doesn’t engage, challenge or utilize a huge number of listening skills that our audience members do possess to a remarkably cultivated degree. A listening public used to symphonies by Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius have the capacity to absorb complex and multi-layered musical narratives that stretch across multiple movements lasting up to 100 minutes. They can sense the emotional implications of a wide variety of sonorities, from the very consonant to the very dissonant. They can remember themes and follow their transformation. Many can sense, if not fully understand, complex tonal relationships between keys. They’ve developed an intimate understanding of the expressive possibilities of the instruments of the orchestra. They’ve learned to spot a huge range of references to vernacular music, from dances to marches. For these listeners, it isn’t simply that they lack the skills to appreciate certain contemporary works, whether modernist or minimalist (although there may well be an element of that), it is also that many contemporary works don’t engage the listening skills and critical faculties they’ve developed across the rest of their listening lives. In some senses, it may be not that we’re challenging them too much, but that we’re not challenging them enough.
In fact, I’ve never accepted that any one style of music has cornered the market on relevance or originality. Hans Gál, whose four gorgeous symphonies were largely overlooked for generations because his language was considered too conservative, spoke eloquently of the difference between “novelty of language” and “originality of thought.” He clearly prized the latter, and his work clearly shows that it is possible to contribute something distinctive, original and personal in even the most well-explored musical language, just as it is all too easy to produce something trite, derivative and empty using the most contemporary means available.
At the ESO, we’re trying to do our part to bring to our orchestral audience substantial, original, challenging and beautiful new works which we think will reward the listening skills they already possess and open up new ways of hearing things over time.
I remember a few years ago reading an interview with an eminent conductor and pianist who declared the musical history had ended with Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony, written in 1971. Of course, many 20th C. critics and composers had long considered Shostakovich and the symphony to be anachronisms. To Adorno, the symphony had died with Gustav Mahler.
And yet, for much of the 20th C., the symphony flourished on an unprecedented scale. It is worth noting that for all we think about the 19th. C as the age of the symphony, there is hardly a single work in the genre composed between Schumann’s final E-flat Major Symphony, written in 1850, and Brahms’s First, completed in 1876, which has firmly entered the repertoire. Mahler, Sibelius and Elgar may have completed their symphonic output in the early years of the 20th C., but subsequent decades gave us cycles of stature and substance by Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev and Martinu. In America, we saw two generations of composers strive to write the great American symphony, leaving a legacy of wonderful works by Roy Harris, Copland, Piston, William Schuman, Leonard Bernstein and Roger Sessions. In Britain, we saw a flowering of the genre after RVW and Elgar which included works by Malcolm Arnold and Bax and two past ESO composers-in-association, Sir Michael Tippett and John McCabe. In America, the legacy of Piston and Harris has been passed on to such natural symphonists as Christopher Rouse, while in Russia, the legacy of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky was continued by Alfred Schnittke. It seems that the urge to engage with this historic form has never left composers. I remember well cover-conducting for Penderecki during a week of rehearsals for a performance of his Third Symphony. When I complimented him on the piece, he laid bare his motivation: “I wanted to write a real symphony,” he said, “like Bruckner.”
But if the symphony never really left us, where does it figure in today’s musical world? Does the birth of a new symphony today mean what it did in Mahler’s day or Beethoven’s? What is the genre’s relationship with the past, and what does it have to offer the future? These are some of the questions I hope the 21st Century Symphony project will encourage us to think about.
As I mentioned above, the idea to ask Philip for a Third Symphony predated the idea for the 21st C. Symphony project, but looking back, I can’t think of a more logical place to start.
I had asked John McCabe if he would be the ESO’s composer-in-association when I joined the orchestra. At the time, we were just beginning what would prove to be a long process of rebuilding the orchestra and we had little to offer John other than passion for his music. What we very much wanted to do, in addition to supporting him, was to send a signal about the kind of orchestra we aspired to be, and the kind of music we aspired to commission, perform and record. John was the most passionate and enthusiastic collaborator imaginable, in spite of the fact that his appointment coincided almost exactly with the onset of his final illness. Following his heart-breaking loss in 2015, there was a huge sense of unfinished business coupled with an urgency to continue the work we’d started with him. In relatively short order, I asked Philip Sawyers to succeed John in the now-renamed John McCabe Composer-in-Association chair.
I knew that in Philip we had a colleague who shared John’s pragmatism, enthusiasm, generosity of spirit and whose music would be an ideal fit for both our orchestra and our audience. Musical Opinion’s own Robert Matthew-Walker had already hailed Sawyers’ work as “…the kind of music for which many people have been secretly hoping for years…” And, of course, I’d also already asked him to write a Third Symphony for us.
I’d first become acquainted with Philip’s music through two key orchestral works, one written in 1972 and one from 2001. As Philip explains, “My first symphony was a commission from the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra. Having almost always written what others had asked for a symphony hadn’t previously been requested. My early (1972) Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass had, from 2001, been performed widely in the USA and my preference for ‘symphonic thought’ must have been noted there.
“As a teenager the symphonies of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich, Walton and many others were all devoured with a passion. I still have a large collection of LPs and scores from those days and studied the works thoroughly.
“To me the symphonic ideal is one of ‘becoming’, of almost organic growth. It is a journey through a myriad of musical ideas that are as closely argued as any philosophical treatise. My First symphony followed the traditional, four movement, form, the movements being a portentous first, a spacious Adagio second, a fleet Scherzo third, and a Finale with an heroic and affirmative ending.”
Philip’s First Symphony reminded me of Penderecki’s comment from so long ago, it was also a “real symphony, like Bruckner.” Not that it sounded anything like Bruckner, any more than Penderecki’s did, but that it had a similar ambition of scale, and a fully realised sense of musical architecture and emotional direction. We became friends around this time and hatched a plan to record three works together for Nimbus with the Orchestra of the Swan- his Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings, his Cello Concerto and his Second Symphony, an astounding work which marked a major step forward in his musical evolution. Philip says of the piece that “Being a great admirer of Schoenberg, my Second symphony, like his First Chamber Symphony, was in one continuous movement if in sections vaguely resembling the traditional four-movement form. I further developed my own harmonic ideas incorporating harmonies and melodic lines that were tonal, atonal, and 12-tone. Schoenberg’s ideas about continuous development appealed to me and somehow my style began to embrace more counterpoint and motivic working than before. I also feel that my years at the ROH with many great Wagner performances gave me a fascination for his transformation of the leitmotif, which now seems just a natural part of my symphonic thinking.”
Sawyers’ Second Symphony is an astonishing work- written for a Beethovenian orchestra, wedding Schoenbergian intensity of thought to Mahlerian emotional grandeur. It is a 20 minute tour-de-force for small orchestra. Throwing budgetary caution to the wind, I suggested to Philip that his Third should be on a grander scale. “By the time I began work on my Third” he says, “my musical explorations had become rather esoteric. The Norwegian composer Fartein Valen, whose almost unrelenting sense of brooding and pessimism and his personal harmonic style appealed. Back to a larger Tchaikovsky-sized orchestra for this new symphony and back to four movements with a similar scheme to my First symphony except instead of a bustling Scherzo, the third movement is an Intermezzo, followed by a Finale in which the last, triumphant section counters the dark pessimism of the first movement, the resignation of the second and the skittishness of the third The symphony ends resolved in mood and tonality on a secure and final G. Although those who know my music will recognise certain stylistic fingerprints common to previous pieces, my Third Symphony is to me a move to somewhere new along a journey that was begun over 50 years ago.” Listeners can hear where we are on that journey on the 28th of February, 2017, when the ESO premieres the Third Symphony in St John’s Smith Square
Even as the 28th of February approaches and my colleagues and I focus on preparing this enormous new score, we’re already thinking well ahead about the next phases of the 21st C. Symphony Project. Now that word of the project is in the public domain, I brace myself for having new symphonies thrust at me in the tube and at coffee shops and cafes across Britain, in spite of the fact that the practical and financial underpinnings of the project remain very much in development. Will we find an audience? Will we find funding? There are no guarantees of success in such a huge endeavour, but we have belief in the rightness of our cause (and ample bloody-mindedness) on our side.
We do have a pretty clear sense of what the next few steps in the cycle will be, and I have a long wish list of possible composers, more than enough to fill out the cycle. But then who is to say that we must stop at a Beethovenian 9? We could stretch it to a Mahlerian 9 (i.e. 11), or add on a Brahmsian 4 or stretch to a Shostovichian 15, although I think there is no chance of us reaching a tally worthy of Haydn or Havergal Brian.
In 2018, we’re looking forward to premiering the Ninth Symphony by David Matthews, one of today’s greatest symphonists, and a composer who has written most admiringly of the music of Philip Sawyers, who Matthews says “has chosen to work within the great tradition of the symphony, a demanding form that many composers are wary of taking on. Sawyers, however, is a natural symphonist: his first two symphonies show those necessary qualities of dynamism, dramatic contrast, lyricism; they are works that renew the tradition in a vital way.” Matthews is also a composer whose works renew the tradition in a vital way, and his Ninth Symphony promises to be a very important addition to the canon, and ninth symphonies tend to be rather special, with Matthews hinting that his will be closer in spirit to Shostakovich’s witty and mercurial ninth than to the more grandiose ninths of Bruckner and Mahler. And beyond Matthews? Well, we know who the next three or four symphonists are, but I’m going to keep you guessing for now.
Tuesday, 28 February, 2016 at 7:30 PM
Pre-concert talk at 6:30 PM
St John’s Smith Square
English Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Woods- Principal Conductor
Clare Hammond- Piano
April Fredrick- Soprano
Philip Sawyers- Fanfare for Brass
Philip Sawyers- Songs of Loss and Regret (London premiere)
Mozart- Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K466
Philip Sawyers- Symphony No. 3 (world premiere)
The Sunday Times has just announced their list of the “100 Best Records of the Year,” across all genres.
We’re delighted to learn that our recording “Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek vol. 1” with pianist Mikhail Korzhev has made this year’s list as one of just 10 CDs in their “Contemporary” category.
“Moving from tonal into 12-tone territory, with arresting results. The foreshortened No. 3 is a witty, mercurial masterpiece.”
Congrats to Misha Korzhev, Kenneth Woods, conductor, producer Benjamin Michael Haas, engineer Ben Connellan, the team at Toccata, and all our wonderful ESO musicians.
You can purchase the CD via our webstore here:
Volume 2 is being released in April 2017.
Poulenc’s frothy, frivolous and rather sexy ballet Les biches does not seem, at first glance, to be the sort of piece to make a hardened muso well up with emotion, but it had just that effect on me about a week ago as I listened to it for the first time in ages.
“Les biches” conducted by Georges Prêtre, who is very, very good at this kind of music….
I’m doing a gorgeous French program this week, conducting the Poulenc alongside Milhaud’s wonderfully ludicrous Le boeuf sur le toit, the effervescent Ibert Flute Concerto, and Gounod’s delightful Petitie Symphonie for winds. I hadn’t done the Poulenc since I learned it in 1999, and it had probably been three or four years since I last heard it, but I as I made my way through the bracing and vivacious opening Rondeau, through the gently poignant Adagietto to the mad and rollicking Rag-Mazurka and the elegant Andantino to the splendidly bonkers Final, I just got more and more emotional.
The story of Les biches is not exactly a tear jerker. The synopsis of the ballet’s plot is as follows: “The action passes in a large white drawing room with just one piece of furniture, an immense blue sofa. In is a warm summer afternoon and three young men are enjoying the company of sixteen lovely young women [“Les biches” or “the does” of the title]. Just as in 18th C prints, their play is innocent in appearance only.”
On the other hand, few composers could ever squeeze as much poignancy into a few notes as Francis Poulenc. He had a genius for distilling rich, powerful and complex emotions into simple, economical and seemingly familiar musical gestures- I sometimes think of him like a French Janacek for his ability to make 2 or 3 chords or a tiny turn of phrase bring a tear to your eye. And Les biches, playfully raunchy as it is, is not without its moments of deep feeling.
“The beauty, the melancholy of Les biches results from a lack of artifice.” Jean Cocteau
However, perhaps because Poulenc had opened the floodgates, when I went on to the far sillier Milhaud (the title translates as “The Ox of the Roof”), I found it still quite emotional to listen to. Fortunately, the ensuing recording of the Gounod, dispatched with vintage wind ensemble uniform mezzo forte, was so boring I was able to regain my composure and get back to work.
So why such a strong reaction to such frivolous music?
Well, for most of us, the last few months have been a pretty deeply unsettling time.
As I was listening to the Poulenc, I was really hit by a sense of loss. It seemed to press an emotional button in me that more overtly intense composers had missed over the last few months. As the world seems to be poised on the knife-edge of a kind of abyss none of us has faced in 80 years (perhaps longer if things go really badly) this kind of sophisticated, witty, nostalgic music was really balm for the soul.
I found myself thinking rather ruefully of the post-World War II experiment in music learning , or rather trying to learn, the lessons of history through the movement that became High Modernism. The short, vastly over-simplified, version of the theory was that the Romantic/Heroic mind-set of composers from Beethoven through Liszt and Wagner to Bruckner had somehow opened the spiritual door to fascism. A new, cooler, more rational, less sensual aesthetic was called for. Music needed a lot less Teutonic testosterone and a lot more moderation and control.
It would go on to be one of the those great historical ironies that although post WW II Modernism produced many musical masterpieces, it also proved fertile ground for movements far more grandiose, totalitarian, fanatic and bellicose than anything even Wagner ever dreamed of. Wagner’s own singular mega-achievement (his four opera Ring cycle) was finally eclipsed in scale, ambition and sheer megalomaniacal madness by Stockhausen’s seven opera cycle, Licht.
Also at the forefront of the post War re-think of music’s means and meanings was Stockhausen’s French counterpoint, the great, even very great, Pierre Boulez. Boulez, himself both a composer and conductor of true genius, worked his way from being an anti-establishment gadfly, calling for the demolition of the opera houses, to becoming the very embodiment of the French musical establishment (and a man who did great work in the opera house, particularly Wagner’s own).
So the modernist rebel became something of a reactionary establishment figure, and the movement that sought to repair the damage of Wagner eventually became a Wagnerian movement. However, if Stockhausen and Boulez did not succeed in diminishing the impact of Romanticism in the 20th C musical world, Boulez at least managed to make damn sure that Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger (the talented half of Les Six) left pretty much no musical heirs.
And what a pity, because if ever there was a perfect and profound antidote to Wagnerian pomposity, it was and is the music of Milhaud and Poulenc (Honegger was a composer of fiercer temperament who perhaps lacked Poulenc’s spark of lightly-worn genius). Both Poulenc and Milhaud often managed to do what Satie hadn’t the talent, skill or the work ethic to do: to make the simple, witty, frivolous and seemingly straightforward truly beautiful and profound. Imagine a post WWII Europe in which the soundtrack was more the slow movement of the Poulenc Cello Sonata (surely one of the most beautiful essays in the genre ever written) or the opening of Milhaud’s jazzy masterpiece La Creation du monde and their musical progeny? Surely that’s music that allows us to meditate on beauty and loss without too much muscle bound misery. Surely it would have been a saner place.
The slow movement, Cavatine, from Poulenc’s 1948 Cello Sonata
As it is, today’s neo-fascists don’t have any use for Bruckner and Liszt. They’ve found industrial-scale corporate Country music and stadium rock have all the phallic energy needed for the modern totalitarian, without any messy meaning, scale or beauty.
Poulenc triumphed where Satie ( who is, I confess, a total blind spot for me. His whose music makes me want to chew my own leg off.) missed the boat. Satie went for “less is more” and ended up with ”not nearly enough” bordering on “I would have preferred nothing” or “I can never get those five minutes back again.” Poulenc went for “saying more with fewer words, speaking simply about profound things, and expressing simple ideas with profound craftsmanship” and got “total genius.”
That last point is in many ways the one that brought me to the edge of tears the other day. Yes, Les biches eschews overt profundity, but it expresses so much of life’s complexities, disappointments and pleasures with such mind boggling musical skill. What place is there in today’s culture for such lightly worn mastery of craft? I fear we’ll never again see such playful brilliance, such wise mischief.
We live in an age that is almost the opposite. Today, particularly in pop culture, but certainly to a degree in art music, we use technology to cover over huge gaps in the skill sets of musicians of all kinds. We pretend one can write great literature without a mastery of language, or a real grasp of form. In an age of autotune and micro editing, where sampling has replaced song-writing and all country music records use the same chord progression, it’s hard to imagine ever again encountering a composer like Poulenc who is so good that you never even notice his genius until you’re sobbing away listening to a one of those 10 second outbursts that make you think you’d give anything to be smoking a cigarette in a shitty apartment in 1920’s Paris, thinking about lost love and empty wine bottles and wondering when the next adventure is going to start and already knowing and accepting the heartbreak that awaits when it’s over.
Poulenc’s music is full of an intoxicating, almost desperate sense of longing, and real, aching nostalgia, juxtaposed with the most direct and unfiltered outbursts of childlike pure joy. “Joie de vivre” is a far more beautiful expression than any of its English translations, and to me, it points up the difference between mere happiness and true “joy of life.” Life is not always happy. It is full of sorrow, loss, disappointment, loneliness, terror and fear, to express, in true musical Technicolor glory as Poulenc does, joy in life, of life, is to find joy in the full mix of happiness and sorrow, delight and disappointment that we all must ultimately experience in the fullness of our lives. And so in an age where pre-packaged consumerist instant gratification and plastic instant “happiness” tries to paper over the pain of social isolation, personal hopelessness and great injustice, where autotune anthems try to down out an inner soundtrack of utter despair, vive la joie de vivre, vive la frivolité.
For the second year in a row, the English Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director Kenneth Woods have received the Classical Music Magazine Premiere of the Year nod for the Midlands. Following on the 2015 selection of the premiere of Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the Elgar Piano Quintet at the Elgar Hall in the final concert of the ESO’s 2015 Elgar Pilgrimage, Christopher Morley, longtime senior music critic of the Birmingham Post, has made the ESO’s performance of John Joubert’s opera Jane eyre his 2016 Premiere of the Year.
The ESO’s Avie Records recording of last year’s Premiere of the Year went on to be a Classic FM CD of the Week and spent 8 weeks in the classical Top 20, all the more reason to look forward to the release of Jane Eyre on Somm Recordings in March 2017.
“…. Kenneth Woods conducting an on-its-toes English Symphony Orchestra and a totally committed cast of 12, among whom April Fredrick as Jane and David Stout as Rochester were simply outstanding…Joubert as a composer is unafraid to encompass the achievements of previous operatic greats…unleashing a wonderfully engaging well-structured language of his own…”
We’re all very, very pleased and proud to see Sarah Beth Briggs’ wonderful AVIE Records recording of piano concerti by Mozart and Hans Gál get a Gramophone Magazine Critic’s Choice of 2016 from Guy Rickards in the year-end issue of the magazine. Bravos to Sarah and my wonderful colleagues in the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Congrats also to producer/engineer Simon Fox-Gal for guiding the recording process so artfully. This was a particularly wonderful project to be part of.
Available from the Downbeat Store at a special Christmas/Gramophone party price for a limited time only here:
You can read Guy Rickards’ original Gramophone review here.
“If there is a happier twentieth-century piano concerto than Hans Gál’s of 1948, I don’t know what it is…Sarah Seth Briggs gives a wonderfully balanced reading of music that seems familiar—in its Classical poise and charm—and strange (much occurs beneath the surface, especially harmonically, that confirms its modernity). Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”
Members of the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra reacted with public expressions of glee upon learning that their colleague, principal trumpet player Jack Hammer, had taken delivery of a new, louder trumpet.
“I’m just so happy for Jack,” said Mabel Teargarden, a violist in the MSO. “I sit right in front of Jack at the back of the viola section, and it’s such a privilege to experience trumpet playing from a distance of just eighteen to twenty-four inches every day. I’m so pleased that Jack has done this- it’s great that he’s bought this new, louder, trumpet and I really can’t wait to station myself in my chair and hear what this new, more powerful instrument sounds like when positioned right behind my head.”
Hammer’s new, louder trumpet is a custom made, wide bore instrument with extra thick plating and nuclear-fused polonium mouthpiece coated in layers of lead and military-grade armor plating. Because of the instrument’s extraordinary weight and size, the Donnerkrieg Vector 7 rests on a steel-reinforced concrete tower which sits on a custom-made reinforced acoustically reflective weight-distributing platform. “It’s just an amazing feeling to finally be able to truly express myself as an artist on my new, louder trumpet” said Hammer. “Of course, we had to do some work with the stage team at Sorrow Hall to reinforce the floor around my chair since the trumpet and stand together weigh just over three thousand pounds, but the steel and graphite panel which sits under the trumpet stand not only spreads the weight across the stage, it’s highly acoustically reflective and helps the upper overtones which I’m looking for in the sound of my new, louder trumpet. I suppose you could say that thanks to the stand and the floor panel, it’s a new, louder, brighter trumpet. I am one lucky guy!”
Old-fashioned trumpets like this are volume limited because they don’t come with a three thousand pound sound reinforcing concrete stand
The Donnerkrieg Vector 7 also replaces the traditional tuning slide with a patented “turbo boost” key which raises the instrument’s pitch in increments of 15 cents every time Hammer presses it. “What a blessing for any trumpet player” said third hornist Will Splatt, “to be able to raise his pitch as often and as quickly as he wants just by pushing a simple button. He has complete and instant control over how sharp he plays. I’m so happy for Jack- he’s really earned this!”
Others in the orchestra shared Teargarden’s enthusiasm for Jack Hammer’s new, louder instrument. “I think I speak for everyone in the woodwind section, when I say we’re just so happy that Jack has fulfilled his long-held ambition to upgrade to a new, louder trumpet,” said Lester Reed, the MSO’s second bassoonist. “We’re all so excited to experience playing our first Mendelssohn symphony alongside Jack’s new, more potent trumpet. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like sitting next to a sound like that!”
Only a few musicians in the orchestra seemed to express concern about the implications of Jack Hammer’s purchase of his new, louder trumpet. “All of us in the brass section are really happy for Jack personally. It’s just great for him that he’s got a new, louder trumpet,” said principal trombonist Ton Tahlfart. “On the other hand, for the brass section to work as a team, we all have to be able to blend, and I’m very concerned that I may now need to purchase a new, louder trombone. This is something a trombonist like me would only consider with the greatest reluctance because new, louder trombones can often cost dozens of dollars.”
But Tahlfart seemed clearly in the minority. Concertmaster Frühund Sharp was quick to express his delight on hearing of Hammer’s purchase of this new, louder instrument. “Jack is a great colleague, and I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sat in the orchestra playing a piece like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Haydn Mass and thought, poor Jack, he’s such a great artist, but just think what he could do with a new, louder trumpet!”
Maestro Robert van Bohyarti, recently returned from a tour as violin soloist in “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Deconstructed” for violin and an ensemble of 20 contrabass clarinets and African drumming ensemble, welcomed news of Jack Hammer’s new, louder trumpet. “The MSO’s bread and butter is Classical and early Romantic repertoire. We carry a core of 45 musicians and specialize in Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, sometimes playing Brahms with the kind of smaller string sections Brahms would have worked with in Meiningen. For us, it’s just fantastic news that Jack has finally bought a new, louder trumpet.”
The relationship between artists and arts funders seems ever more complicated. It seems to me that most funders (trusts, public sector funders, private sponsors) lack the energy, time or knowledge to vet funding applications in the arts on the basis of merit or quality. The problem is compounded in music as few people making decisions about musical projects can read a score well enough to judge its merits. Instead, these days funders decide in advance who or what they want to fund, and artists have to somehow find a way to thread their artistic vision through the hole in someone else’s needle.
Take for instance a new and worthy scheme for supporting repeat performances of new musical work- it’s a wonderful idea, but the scheme has already decided which pieces by which composers they will fund. What if one wants to support one of the composers in the scheme, but the selected works are not programmable for that organization but others would be? What if a performing organization or artist thinks there are, dare I say it, better or more deserving composers not on the list? A project whose laudable goal is expanding the repertoire becomes self-limiting both in terms of the composers and works which could benefit from its support, but also limits which organization’s skills, talents and networks the funding organization can benefit from.
Has it always been thus? Why do some artists and composers become “fundable” and others, equally deserving, not? I fear it has far too much to do with the clique-ish and tribal nature of the arts. If you’re in the club, you’re in the club. If you’re not, you’re not, and you’re probably not going to be. There are many great, great artists in the club, but also plenty whose last ten projects were stinkers, but they’re still fundable because of something they did (or someone they knew) in 1974.
In an industry that seems to be crying out for innovation, an industry that oozes group-think on an industrial scale, why is it so hard make the case that something genuinely new is a good idea worth funding? Rather than subsidize the 1 percent of artists who have already made it, why not invest more in identifying extraordinary talents who have not yet had their time in the sun? It seems that we’ve reached the point where there is almost no mechanism by which a credible artist or organization can make the case from scratch that a given project is worth funding solely on merit. When you’ve reached the point at which one can only fund projects and people who are already funded, or duplicate work already being done, or commission composers/authors/artists who are already being supported, the phrase “creative industries” starts to sound ever more oxymoronic. Industry is about mass production, about churning out consumer-ready content, whether it’s cars or ten minute concert openers with catchy titles. What is creative about that? It seems our funding paradigm has actually forced us into a consumerist, semi-oligarchical business model in the arts.
Where there is money, there will always be politics, but surely there ought to be some scope for more transparency and more peer review of funding applications?
Meanwhile, I know that the best way to look after my own orchestra and the artists I want to support is to focus on making me and the orchestra fit the “who we want to fund” box. We’re very lucky that some of what we want to do is what people want to fund, and some people want to fund us because of who we are. Bless everyone of our supporters for everything they do to help make the music possible. But how do we develop new ideas, how to we find new audiences, how do we support new voices if they’re not already on the who/what lists?
What do you think?
For me, it was musical love at first sight. The first time I heard the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was on a cassette tape. I loved it so much, I kept rewinding and replaying bits of the first movement (most often the big tutti at the end of the exposition- even then I had conductor tendencies). It must have taken me the better part of 2 hours to listen to get to the end of the first movement the first time I listened to it. I was hardly new to Tchaikovsky- I’d imprinted on the Fifth Symphony and Romeo and Juliet at a very young age. But the Violin Concerto struck me as very special from the first time I heard it.
And since then, I’ve heard it and heard it and heard it. I’ve played it in orchestra a gazillion times. I’ve conducted it many times. I’ve heard performances that ranged from astounding to atrocious.
I suppose these days, it has true warhorse status- every serious violinist has learned it. One could walk the hallways at the IU School of Music when I was a student and hear 35 people practicing it at once- and almost all of them playing it damn well.
And yet, the piece remains a curiously high risk work of art, one that somehow seems to confound many performers. How can such a well-known masterpiece still be performed regularly with cuts that Tchaikovsky abhorred and which only weaken the structure of the work?
It is the nature of a such a famous piece that it will ultimately be heard in all manner of performances, good and bad, but I can’t help but feel that it gets more than its fair share of the bad. Somehow, in spite of those many performances which fall into the obvious traps (sensationalistic, routine, competition-ish), the piece survives in the hearts of music lovers worldwide.
1877 was the year of Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonia Milyukova, a former student who made so little impression on him that he couldn’t even remember when he received her first love letter. The marriage only lasted a few months, but drove Tchaikovsky to a botched suicide attempt. Rescued from the situation by his brother Anatoly, Tchaikovsky seemed to recover his focus and inspiration rather quickly. In the early months of 1878 he completed the two works he’d been working on before his marriage: the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin. Shortly thereafter he had a visit from another former student, and likely past (and possibly current) lover, the violinist Yosif Kotek. The two played through Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol, and Tchaikovsky was struck by the work’s freshness, and Lalo’s willingness to avoid the sobriety he associated with German essays in the genre. Tchaikovsky quickly set to work on his own Concerto, working closely with Kotek, who learned the violin part as Tchaikovsky wrote it and helped advise the composer on writing for the violin. Progress on the Concerto was swift, and the work was finished within a month. In the end, however, it was not to be Kotek who would bring the work to life. Tchaikovsky dedicated the new Concerto to Leopold Auer, then the leading violin soloist and pedagogue in Russian musical life. A premiere was planned for March 1879, but Auer pulled out, reportedly dismissing the Concerto as “unplayable” (Auer later firmly denied saying this) Tchaikovsky was devastated, humiliated, and the concert was cancelled.
It took another two years for the work to find a first performance, but this was not to be a happy occasion for Tchaikovsky, either. A young, relatively unknown violinist named Adolph Brodsky learned the piece and organized a performance with none other than the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Hans Richter. Not only did the concert go poorly, it drew one of the most vituperative reviews in all music history from the influential critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick said of the piece that it was music “whose stink you can hear.” Tchaikovsky never forgot that review and could quote it word for word until the end of his life.
(The 75-year-old Leopold Auer shreds some Brahms)
Auer was eventually shamed into learning the Concerto, and became an important advocate for the piece, although his legacy remains decidedly mixed. To his credit, he performed the piece many times, and, perhaps more importantly, taught it to some of the greatest violinists of the new century, including Jascha Heifitz, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Ellman and Efrem Zimbalist. On the other hand, Auer insisted on making his own “version” of the work, which he taught to his many students, rewriting several passages and introducing many cuts in the score, and, sadly, many of these changes continue to appear in performances of leading violinists to this day. Auer’s changes are worse than unnecessary – they represent a major defacing of a great work of art, and a strangely enduring defacing at that.
I’ve already pointed out that Auer’s cuts and rewritings to the Violin Concerto constitute a very regrettable stain on that great violinist’s reputation. Nevertheless, we should remember one thing about Auer’s role in the genesis of the Concerto: while the piece was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s fling with Kotek, and although Brodsky would be the one who brought the piece into the world at last, while writing the work, Tchaikovsky always had Auer in mind as the soloist for the premiere, and as the planned dedicatee.
We’re very lucky that a few bits of Auer’s playing survive on recording. Although he is remembered as the godfather of the great Russian school of violin playing, Auer himself was Hungarian and studied in Vienna with Jakob Dont, Josef Hellmesberger Sr. and Josef Joachim. As the excerpt above shows, what Auer got from Joachim was a kind of super-focused intensity of contact between bow and string, and a very sustained, well-projected, even, singing sound with fantastic clarity of articulation. Auer, at least in the few clips that survive, seems to play with a more frequent and intense vibrato than Joachim.
But what did his students get from Auer, and what, if anything, does their playing tell us about how the Tchaikovsky should be played? Perhaps no instrumental pedagogue in history had so huge a legacy of astounding students as Auer. Those who come close to him in sheer numbers like Ivan Galamian and Dorothy Delay in essence gave up playing to teach full time. Auer was a formidable and prolific performer and had a long career.
Auer’s greatest students, including Oscar Shumksy, Misha Elman, Jascha Heifitz, Efram Zimbalist and Nathan Milstein were a very diverse group of distinct personalities. No fan of the violin would ever mistake Heifitz’s playing for Elman’s. Their very different takes on the Tchaikovsky, however, share a number of qualities, most importantly, in my opinion, in their fundamental approach to the use of the bow. All of them are superb lyrical players, all play with incredible focus, and an incredible sense of linear intensity. Their “voices” were fundamentally different- Heifitz with his very fast vibrato and laser-like directness, Elman with his more old-school sensibility, his elegance and aristocratic passion, and Milstein with his incredible vocal naturalness and virtuoso’s sense of courting danger- for me, his was always the perfect voice, even if Heifitz was the more perfect singer. Vibrato in their performances is generously applied, but constantly varied and colored, and often quite restrained and narrow. Somewhere in their the breadth of their interpretive differences, the vastly wide-ranging contrasts of their personalities, and the similarity and variety of their tonal vocabularies, one begins to get a sense of what the parameters of a historically grounded approach to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece might sound like, at least in instrumental terms. I’ve selected below, almost at random, recordings of three of these eminent violinists for comparison, but a curious listener will discover just as much of interest by seeing how each of these players’ approach varies throughout their career, from performance to performance, and recording to recording.
If the careful study of early recordings can help us to understand the soloist’s balance of intensity, lyricism, power, delicacy and classical clarity that Tchaikovsky seemed to have in mind when writing the piece, it’s important to strenuously point out that I can scarcely think of any piece of music which has suffered more from being learned from recordings than this one. Far too many young violinists know only their own part (we call them “top liners”), and have bypassed careful study of the full score by substituting the imitation of other artists’ (and their own teachers’) mannerisms and choices.
In fact, the rigid regurgitation of the nuances of a given recording would surely have been abhorrent to a player like Mischa Elman, whose playing is marked by such a natural, easy, in-the-moment sense of flexibility, and an uncanny ability to make one wonder if he’s improvising at times.
Rubato is the salt and vibrato the pepper of Romantic music- the essential seasonings which brings the flavor of it to life. Tchaikovsky, for all his classicism, would probably be pretty horrified to hear a strictly metronomic “the Urtext and nothing but the Urtext” reading of his Concerto, but by the time one is listening to a third or fourth generation imitation of a tempo nuance that an early 20th c. player probably only did once or twice in his career, one has blurred completely the line between engaging creatively with Tchaikovsky’s text, and not knowing, or worse yet not caring, what that text actually is. Remember, you can learn a poem in a foreign language by ear and repeat it accurately without having any idea what it means- this is not an interpretive approach an artist ought to settle for.
My advice to a violinist learning, or relearning, the piece would be to learn it from the score and to analyze it as one would a symphonic work (ask a conductor or composer how if you need to), treating the solo part as an integrated and interdependent part of the musical whole. The first movement is symphonic in both scope and character, and it’s important for the soloist to not only have all kinds of cool ideas about when to take time and all that fun stuff, but to understand the structure, to understand how each section develops, ebbs and flows. How did Tchaikovsky hear the piece unfolding its totality in his inner ear?
The second movement’s lyrical simplicity and the finale’s rustic virtuosity show Tchaikovsky deploying very different facets of his art. For all its high spirits, the Finale is just as carefully (and beautifully) constructed as the first movement. It’s lighter character puts the concerto in the same tradition as concerti for violin and piano by Brahms and Beethoven, in which the main structural weight of the work is in the first movement. However, Tchaikovsky never intended the finale to be a throwaway affair, which is why the cuts (and the rewrites to the violin part) which originated with Auer are such a travesty. By shortening the movement, they turn it into something much more empty and merely showy than the composer intended. It’s no more repetitive than the last movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (less so, actually), and nobody would dare cut Beethoven.
It’s no surprise that a piece as popular and ubiquitous would invite performances which go to sometimes absurd lengths to stand out from the crowd. In 80’s and 90’s, the way to get noticed with the Tchaikovsky was to treat it like an Olympic sporting event and try to rack up as many world records as you could: the world’s widest vibrato, world’s closes-to-the-bridge contact point, world’s loudest violin, world’s fastest finale, world’s cleanest octaves… You get the picture. Even in concerts and recordings, the competition mentality seemed to dominate. As with the imitation of recordings, treating the work like a 100 yard dash or a powerlifting event tends to make one forget what the piece actually is- we play faster to show we can play faster, we play louder to show we can play louder.
More recently, we’ve seen a number of soloists chuck the baby right out with the bathwater of the competition mentality with performances that simply strive to be as bizarre and contrarian as possible. As anyone who has raised a toddler will know, being contrary does not always equate to being wise, reasonable, knowledgeable or inspired. Do we really need a ponticello Tchaikovsky, a Baroque Tchaikovksy, a flautando Tchaikovsky or or a fiddle Tchaikovsky? Or, for that matter, a brutalist Tchaikovsky or a metronome Tchaikovsky? All of these approaches can only be delivered by limiting the dynamic and expressive range of the violin, which seriously impairs the ability of the soloist to do justice to the structure of the work, particularly the first movement, with it’s long, gradually evolving melodic arches. A real re-think of the piece ought to be about a careful and detailed examination of the text, challenging oneself to find where the balance between head and heart lies. It’s about making millions of small decisions free from vanity, not about looking for one big blockbuster gimmick to get yourself noticed. It’s about finding 1000 ways to use and not vibrato, not simply turing it to stun or turning it off completely. Doing something novel with a piece like the Tchaikovsky is not hard- little kids come up with novel ideas for food all the time, but most folks wouldn’t want to eat roast beef with marshmallow sauce. Bringing such a familiar piece to life with total commitment and honesty is harder than simply playing the whole concerto with a bass bow. Moving an audience is harder, and far more meaningful, than simply surprising or shocking them.
At the end of the day, maybe the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto would actually benefit from a few more performances where the audience left talking more about Tchaikovsky’s genius and less about the approach of the soloist?
Not long ago, I did the piece with my friend Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who recorded this fascinating little video with some of her thoughts about the piece. I think what she says about the stylistic commonalities between the Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores is really spot on
I’ve conducted the Tchaikovsky now many times both with and without the cuts. In every case, I’ve found the cuts to be unnecessary and destructive, as are Auer’s re-writings of the solo part. However, that’s not say by any means that I haven’t enjoyed working with my colleagues in those performances. At the end of the day, it’s the violinist’s piece to make or break- the conductor can encourage, advise and suggest a little bit here and there, but at the end of the day, my job is to make their decision, whether I would have made the same decision, sound like the right decision. I’ve done some thrilling performances with the cuts, and one just hopes that someday, I can repeat the piece with those same wonderful colleagues without!
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