Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Early Romanticism In Saint Paul

On Saturday night, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in concert.

We heard the second program of a three-week project devoted to music of Franz Schubert. During the three-week series, each program has as its foundation a Schubert symphony complemented by a shorter Schubert work, to which has been added a contemporary score.

Last weekend, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was the centerpiece of the program. One of the greatest symphonies ever written, the Schubert Ninth is not often performed in the U.S., probably because American orchestras can no longer play Schubert (the Cleveland Orchestra excepted).

Thomas Zehetmair had been engaged to lead all three weeks of the SPCO Schubert project, and it was a pleasure to hear Zehetmair lead the Schubert Ninth.

Because the performance involved chamber forces, Zehetmair was obliged to offer a “light” Schubert Ninth—and a “light” Schubert Ninth can be perfectly satisfactory.

I found the SPCO performance more than satisfactory. Tempos were swift, textures were light, rhythms were sprightly. There was a notable “fresh” quality to the performance, a performance characterized above all by energy and zest.

I loved the reading—and this was so even though I view the Schubert Ninth, at heart, as a melancholy work. I do not view the Schubert Ninth as deeply tragic, as exhibited in Furtwängler’s recorded performances, and I do not view the work as above all dramatic, as demonstrated in Toscanini’s recorded performances—but I do see the work as an exemplar of Viennese melancholy melded to Viennese charm, as best displayed in the legendary Decca recording of Josef Krips.

By Krips’s standards, Zehetmair’s performance was lacking in melancholy—and was short on charm, too. However, the SPCO performance was beautifully played, with very pure intonation, and enjoyed the musicians’ full concentration. To ask for more from a chamber ensemble would be unreasonable.

The concert opened with a performance of the Overture to Schubert’s 1822 opera, “Alfonso And Estrella”, an overture equally indebted to the curtain-raisers of Weber and Rossini. The work, in sonata form, is pleasant enough, but is not often played because its development is cursory and not particularly imaginative.

Between the two Schubert works was played a contemporary work, “Neharót Neharót”, by Israeli composer Betty Olivero (born 1954), a former composition student of Luciano Berio.

The Hebrew title may be translated as “Rivers, Rivers” and refers to rivers of tears and rivers of blood associated with wartime. Olivero wrote the work in 2006, while hostilities between Israel and Lebanon were being played out on global television; Olivero has recounted, in countless interviews, how she wrote the score while riveted to newscasts.

The composition is scored for solo viola, two string orchestras, accordian, percussion—and tape. The taped sounds are laments of grieving women from Kurdistan, Yemen and North Africa.

The score, nowise good, was not half so hokey as the circumstances of its origination might suggest—although the taped sounds of grieving women, which I found laughable, unquestionably should have been omitted (and the accordian replaced with an oboe or English horn).

Insofar as possible, I ignored the taped sounds and focused on the musical argument.

It was apparent, ninety seconds into the piece, that Olivero had rewritten Berio’s “Voci” (1984), with significant additional borrowings from Frank Martin’s “Polyptyque” (1974). Both composers, if alive today, surely would sue for plagiarism.

At least Olivero had the good sense to model her work upon two acknowledged masterpieces. Her composition, derivative and uninspired, somehow managed to hold together as a unified work, which is not nothing. The composer played off the solo viola against the two string orchestras beautifully. The Eastern Mediterranean contour to the melodies may have carried the tinge of 1950s travelogues, but the Eastern Mediterranean flavor was mostly inoffensive.

The viola soloist was Kim Kashkashian.

I think it was a mistake to have engaged Kashkashian for a fifteen-minute piece requiring little if any virtuosity. I have always liked Kashkashian, but any competent violist could have played the solo viola’s mournful, one-dimensional tunes with ease. It was an unnecessary expense for the SPCO to have brought Kashkashian all the way to Minnesota to play something the orchestra’s principal violist could have tossed off while napping.

Kashkashian has aged significantly since the last time I saw her in performance. I barely recognized her when she came onstage.

Once the current Schubert project has run its course, the SPCO immediately embarks upon a three-week project devoted to the symphonies of Mendelssohn. All concerts in the Mendelssohn series are scheduled to be conducted by Roberto Abbado.

Early Romanticism is being celebrated in Saint Paul this spring.

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