Last night, after a full day of playing with the kids (and the dog) as well as having a go at the mountains of food left over from Thanksgiving, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was the first Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert of the season for all of us.
It was the music that drew us to Ordway Center, not the guest artists. British conductor Douglas Boyd, a very minor talent who has worked with the SPCO on and off for years, was on the podium. Pianist Jeremy Denk, an even more insignificant figure, was guest soloist.
The concert featured one modern work: Australian composer Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, a one-movement quarter-hour work for chamber orchestra. Written in 2000 and premiered in 2001, the Pastoral Symphony incorporates taped sounds: birdsong “dramatically contrasted with industrial and mechanical sounds of environmental degradation”, i.e., the sounds of chainsaws chopping down trees.
The work is as deadly earnest and dreadfully clichéd as the composer’s program notes suggest. Quiet birdsong begins the piece, after which volume mounts until what is supposed to be a climax is reached—this is where the chain saws come in—after which the piece ends in what is, I believe, supposed to be an elegy. Any competent composer could write a devastating parody of the piece without altering a single gesture.
In comparison to the sheer silliness and utter ineptitude of Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, George Antheil’s feeble Ballet Mecanique and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s even-more-feeble Cantus Arcticus—two unsuccessful compositions that bear some surface programmatic similarities to Dean’s effort—become incomparable masterpieces.
Dean, a violist as well as composer, writes well for violin and viola—at least from a technical standpoint. Practitioners of those instruments relate that Dean knows how to write idiomatically and gratefully for solo violin and solo viola. Violinists Midori and Frank Peter Zimmermann, among others, have taken up various Dean compositions for violin.
Dean’s orchestral music, however, is another matter. Dean’s orchestral music is unimaginative and unoriginal. It lacks ideas, it lacks profile, it lacks personality, it lacks character. In fact, Dean does not even write competently for orchestra: his orchestral music does not “sound”. In all of these respects, Dean strikes me as Australia’s answer to American composer Stephen Hartke, whose bland, faceless music shares the same attributes.
Indeed, Dean’s Pastoral Symphony has numerous—and eerie—parallels with Hartke’s 1988 composition, Pacific Rim: both works strive so hard to be trendy, using every popular device of the moment, that both were incongruously—and gruesomely—outdated even before final drafts were sent to copyists.
Dean is not very talented. His composition ideas are thin—if they can be called ideas—and he does not know how to work them out. Dean’s music does not develop, it does not attain climaxes, it does not resolve, it does not cohere. It’s thin, tonal stuff, without rhythmic interest, without complexity, without strong organizing principles, and might as well have been written in 1890 for all the interest in modernism it displays. (Dean does, however, know how to write a satisfactory chromatic harmonic progression, about the only thing he does well.)
Simon Rattle is the single conductor of note who has taken up Dean’s music—Dean for years played in the viola section of Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic—and Rattle’s advocacy is not particularly meaningful, since Rattle has never shown himself to be a good judge of contemporary composition. No other high-profile conductor has ever touched Dean’s work-list.
Boyd and the SPCO gave a clean performance of the Pastoral Symphony, cleaner than the Swedish Chamber Orchestra performance recorded for the BIS label and issued a few years back. However, the SPCO musicians revealed no surprises and no unexpected depths in the score.
Programming Dean’s Pastoral Symphony was a waste of the orchestra’s and the audience’s time. In a concert otherwise devoted to music of Beethoven and Brahms, the orchestra should have programmed a fifteen-minute piece by Luciano Berio instead of Dean. Berio’s music can stand up to Beethoven and Brahms; Dean’s music cannot.
The Serenade No. 2 of Brahms opened the program. It was the highlight of the evening.
Scored for violas, cellos, double basses, two flutes (with one flautist doubling as piccolo in the final movement), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns, the Serenade No. 2 has a dark, solemn coloration, seemingly not in keeping with the serenade form. Brilliance is not allowed. High strings are omitted from the instrumentation, as are high brass and percussion.
And yet the work is charming, ear-beguiling and radiant, surely standards by which a serenade may be judged. Brahms enlarged and deepened the serenades of Mozart, but he did not abandon the requirement that serenades, above all, be pleasurable.
Two years ago, Orrin Howard captured the essence of this early five-movement work of Brahms in program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
The lilt, the warmth, the gracious melodies, and the enlivening cross rhythms [are what] give distinction to a work that ESSENTIALLY fits the definition of a serenade.
A solemn and extended sonata-form Allegro begins the serenade; a brilliant and extended Rondo concludes it. At its center lies a profound and extended Adagio, framed by a brief Scherzo and a brief Minuet. The Adagio has the gravity and simplicity of Bach, and is the heart of the Serenade No. 2.
Boyd and the SPCO offered a plain, surface performance of Serenade No. 2, missing opportunities to revel in luxuriousness of sound and ignoring undercurrents of melancholy that permeate the work.
Nevertheless, I am always happy to hear the Brahms Serenade No. 2—the work is not often programmed—and I was happy to hear it last night.
Oddly, the Minnesota Orchestra will play the Brahms Serenade No. 2 in the third week of January, less than two months from now. I doubt that the Serenade No. 2 has ever previously been programmed by both local ensembles in the same season.
The Brahms should have been played last on the SPCO program, but the SPCO placed the Brahms before intermission, offering Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as the concluding work of the evening.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 is a very easy piece to play—it is easy for the orchestra, easy for the conductor, easy for the pianist—but it is also one of the most appealing of Beethoven’s early works. The Concerto No. 1, buoyantly infectious, brims with energy and high spirits and good humor. One need simply play the notes on the printed page, and the full effect of the work comes across. It was not until his Concerto No. 3 that Beethoven wrote a piano concerto in which the notes themselves are merely the starting point.
Alas, few of the attractions of the Piano Concerto No. 1 registered last night because the pianist was inadequate.
No one claims Denk to be a virtuoso—he does not possess even a satisfactory technique—but his playing last night was shockingly poor. Any competent pianist can toss off the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 while sleeping, but Denk was operating at the outer reaches of his technical capacity in the most rudimentary passagework. Even simple scales were not delivered cleanly and evenly.
The first movement of the concerto was singularly lacking in drama, weight and forward propulsion. There was a choppy, start-and-stop quality to Denk’s playing, and no interplay with conductor and orchestra. Denk had trouble finding and keeping a basic pulse, and demonstrated a pronounced tendency to rush things whenever a moderately demanding passage approached.
Denk made absolutely nothing of the slow movement. It was interminable in his hands—shapeless, wandering, expressionless—and lacked tension and lyricism.
The final movement had no rhythmic bite, no sense of momentum, no suggestion of having reached a resolution at its conclusion.
One of Denk’s technical problems is that he places his bench too far from his keyboard. This unsuitable placement affects his shoulders, upper arms and lower arms, none of which are relaxed enough to produce a pleasing sound from his instrument and none of which are in the proper placement for producing power without strain. I could not help but notice that Denk frequently turned his upper body from side to side whenever he had to address the far ends of his keyboard—a pedagogical issue that should have been addressed before he was ten years old—and I could not help but notice that Denk had to stretch and contort his entire body (Denk has very short legs) in order to reach his instrument’s pedals. The latter absurdity produced several delicious moments of comedy during Denk’s performance—moments that were, according to my father, well worth the price of admission.
I had not seen Denk since February 2008, when I had heard him in joint recital with Joshua Bell in the same hall in Saint Paul. Denk, not a handsome man, has put on weight in the last forty-five months, and is starting to develop an alarming if not frightening facial resemblance to James Levine.
On our way back to Edina after the concert, my father said, “Well, I suppose we’ll have to put on the Kempff/Van Kempen the very minute we get home to get this disaster out of our minds. Otherwise, we’ll be prone to nightmares.” My father was referring to the celebrated early-1950s Wilhelm Kempff/Paul Van Kempen/Berlin Philharmonic mono recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, perhaps my father’s favorite recorded account of the work.
When we arrived home, however, we did not bother to cleanse our minds and souls with Kempff/Van Kempen—it was getting late, and the dog wanted some attention, and we were ready to eat more Thanksgiving food (cold turkey and cold Brussels sprouts) before turning in.
Today is the final game of the season for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota will host Illinois this afternoon, and the game will be played in the Twin Cities.
My brothers will attend the game, but my father has decided to skip the game and to stay home and to play with his grandchildren.
In my father’s place, my sister-in-law will attend her very first American college football game. She has no interest in sports, and she knows next-to-nothing about American college football, but she decided on Friday that she would like to go to one college football game to see what all the excitement was about. My brothers will take good care of her.
I predict she will enjoy the pre-game ceremonies and festivities, and the halftime show.
After all, The University Of Minnesota Marching Band (“The Pride Of Minnesota”), marching since 1892 and performing block-formation halftime shows since 1910, is very, very good.
I doubt, however, that my sister-in-law will be impressed with blocking and tackling, passing and punting, or first downs and field goals.