Immersion, Conversion

“The last 80 years,” writes Ned Rorem in Facing the Night, his latest collection of terse and invigorating personal observations, “have been the sole period in history wherein music of the past takes precedence over the present .?.?. I never go to classical concerts anymore, and I don’t know anyone who does. It’s hard still to care whether some virtuoso tonight will perform the Moonlight Sonata a bit better or worse than another virtuoso performed it last night.”

Either by accident or design, I haven’t actually heard the “Moonlight” for a very long time. With the help of our local band, however, I’ve been able to revisit the Beethoven Nine Symphonies over recent seasons, each of them juxtaposed with a new and different music that obliged me to ponder differences and hear both works in a new light. This weekend and next, I get to revisit the Four of Brahms — as, by coincidence, do audiences at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Center — and have just recovered from the news that the next Disney season kicks off with all seven — count ’em — Sibelius symphonies. I find this delightful, sort of. I have become famous for my out-of-hand deploration of the music of that Finnish master, based on a certain tendency in his music toward thickness and ugliness of sound and pomposity of oratory. Faced with the prospect of this new total immersion, I am now forced to confess that I have never, not once, heard live performances of the Sibelius Third or Sixth symphonies. It would not at all surprise me if I emerged from this Sibelius immersion waving the Finnish banner and chanting Finlandia at full voice. Something similar happened last summer, after all, when a performance of the Violin Concerto, a loathing for which I had often proclaimed, won me over completely at a Hollywood Bowl concert. I’m just as glad, however, it isn’t included on the Philharmonic’s new list.

As with “Beethoven Unbound,” the Brahms series aren’t just any old concert programs. Christoph von Dohnányi is the guest conductor, and his past visits here proclaim him as a uniquely warm-hearted visionary toward the Romantic orchestral repertory. He begins by leveling the playing field — literally, by bringing his podium and all the players down to almost the same level and thereby suggesting a kind of chamber-music-writ-large approach. This seems to clarify and make somewhat gentle what I often find unbearable in Brahmsian orchestration. I find Dohnányi’s Brahms actually almost likable; that’s a new kind of sound, for the Philharmonic and for Onkel Johannes as well.

The Brahmsian structures are awesome: not only the astonishing building up in the finale of the Fourth Symphony but the much more devious — and, in the end, far more elusive — accumulation of shape in the finale of the Second, which, after some 60 years of puzzling out, I’ve only now begun to comprehend. I also admire the marvelous trickery in the Brahms scherzi, every one a magic box of melodic invention. It’s the pure sound of the oratorical Brahms that I cannot abide, least of all in performances in the hard-edged, frenzied Toscanini manner that some critics have tried to pass off as “noble” and “eloquent.” If some high-minded brat of a composer had come at me with the opening of his First Symphony, those insolent drums and the C-minor constipation in the strings and the horns, I’d have been out the door before the 10th bar. Critics must have had stronger constitutions in those days.

Contemporary Hero

Tardily, and with some difficulty, I write of Steve Reich and of Daniel Variations, his most recent large-scale work for chorus and orchestra, which the Los Angeles Master Chorale introduced at Disney Hall in late January. The music sets words from the Book of Daniel and words spoken by Daniel Pearl, the journalist from Encino captured and slain by terrorists in Pakistan. Since the murder, a Daniel Pearl Foundation has come into being; Pearl’s parents, Ruth and Judea, were at the local performance.

All of which makes it difficult to deal along parallel lines with music and circumstance, the more so because of Reich’s much-honored excellence. Daniel Variations is a work for chorus and orchestra, about 25 minutes in length, which follows the layout of the previous You Are (Variations), as well it should; that happens at the moment to be Reich’s extremely successful method of dealing with text, chorus, and the familiar Reich orchestra of keyboards, percussion and small numbers of instruments, all amplified. Not surprisingly, the new work sounds a lot like the earlier piece. That circumstance is bound to detract from the importance of the event, but it should not detract from the excellence of the music. Future performances will surely present Daniel Variations in other contexts than this first time, coupled with You Are (Variations), and that will be the time to write about it as music.

Mahagonny Revisited

No opera company that can come up with this season’s Don Carlo, Poppea and Mahagonny in a single throw can be reckoned below first-rate. On the whole, I will stick to my words of praise for this honorable production of this one-of-a-kind masterpiece; a second visit left me, as at the first time, shaken by the raw strength of the whole. Audra McDonald’s Jenny is, in a word, unmatchable: totally insidious from her first line, oozing poison at every word. I could wish for the elimination of the “Cranes” duet in Act 3, which neither Brecht nor Weill felt wholly comfortable about, but at least she sings it with complete dishonesty. Anthony Dean Griffey is a splendidly goofy Jimmy, and it’s good that the new translation gives him a singable name: “McIntyre,” not “Mahoney.” I don’t know why I didn’t single out Donnie Rae Albert before for his Trinity Moses in the “Trial Scene”; he was terrific.

John Doyle’s staging doesn’t entirely work. He fills his stage with palookas and lets them fall over one another, and this especially undermines the ending. That is one of the most devastating endings in all opera, and James Conlon’s orchestra and chorus make it so here, but as Jimmy himself says, sometime earlier:


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