Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Touring Test #1

I have spent this last week in New York; on tour as assistant conductor with the Royal Danish Opera. With three different performances - concert, opera, chamber music - our danish delegation has been a part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival. I was here as a failsafe, a backup in case that something random should happen to Michael Schønwandt, preventing him from conducting the tour. Cancelling the multi-million kroner one-shot performance of "Selma Jezkova" would have been pretty disastrous, so I landed a week in NY, trying my best to help Michael with listening to balance and giving corrections, and otherwise staying out of the way.


Naturally, we brought danish music: Nielsen, Ruders and...uhm...well, that's it for danish composers. Most likely those are the only two that concertgoers in New York would be able to recognise, so all in all safe and sound choices. Nielsen remains the danish 'national composer', the aptitudinal benchmark for all danish composers, and Poul Ruders is the most prolific and most performed (in the US) of all danish composers.

On a side note, the NY Phil and Alan Gilbert will attempt another Nielsen revival in the US, performing and recording all of his concerts and symphonies. I can't imagine they will be hugely succesful though. Nielsen's orchestra music is still - with a few exceptions - too esoteric, too eclectic, too...random...for him to aqquire any solid mainstream following outside of a country like Denmark, where we really have very few national heroes to choose from. Alan Gilbert says "I'm sure Nielsen's time is coming" so let's hope he's correct. Being the chief conductor of the NY Phil should lend some weight to his opinion, and with the great pieces (4th and 5th symphony, clarinet and violin concerto) leading the way, the rest of Nielsen's oeuvre might follow.


Back to the tour:
The Royal Danish Orchestra and Michael Schønwandt played a great concert (yeah, you could say I'm biased, but so far the critics have agreed) in the somewhat wet accoustics of Alice Tully hall on thursday.
They opened with Nielsen's "Pan & Syrinx", a short and strange orchestra piece, perhaps something akin to a octagonal bonbon; it feels really akward in your mouth even if it still has a likeable flavor.
Apparently Nielsen composed it in about 10 days, and I wouldn't be surprised if that were true. It has great spontaneous compositional elements (like the percussion/low-strings polymetric counterpoint at the tutti culmination measure#135-142) but also several elements that surely would benefit from a bit of critical editing: Leading up to the middlesections first culmination at measure 110, the 1st Clarinet and Cor Anglais fight an impossible fight for prominence, the Cor Anglais especially suffering in a range that doesn't allow it to project a real 'ff' and hence their screaming duet is reduced to one screaming clarinet and one distant cry for help from the Cor Anglais. At another tutti 'ff'' - measure #51 - Nielsen decides to have the bassoons play a strange downward arpeggio figure, which is completely unrelated to anything else going on and is absolutely drowned in the massive sound of the rest of the orchestra. Only a lot of creative editing allows you to hear this on a recording, for it stands no chance in a live performance.

After "Pan & Syrinx" followed the much performed and always wellrecieved clarinet concerto. John Kruse performed the solopart in what I felt was somewhat under his normally amazing standards, rushing many sections and feeling short-of-breath. I think he was nervous, and boy, I don't blame him.
When that is said, it was by any other measure a great performance, but knowing from experience that he can do it better, I felt slightly dissapointed. John is one of those rare players that can singlehandedly 'make' a concert and leave you speachless with one of his beautiful flowing lines, and I couldn't help feeling that, when push comes to shove, he might be too much of a nice guy for Nielsen's hysterical concerto. I'll bring that thought with me for next time I hear John perform it. He might prove me completely wrong.

I don't love the clarinetconcerto immensely, even if I respect it highly and consider it among Nielsen's very best works. For example I find the recurring 3/4 'quasi adagio' meandering theme (first occuring at measure #219) to be too bland for Nielsen to give it repeated appearances, and personally my ears grow tired of the dark strings/horn/bassoon emulsion that he limited the orchestration to. Granted, the snaredrum is a refreshing element and something very and truly original, but for some reason it eventually comes out as slightly impotent. Had Nielsen given the snaredrum a cadenza of it's own, and perhaps upgraded it to a Concerto for Clarinet and Snaredrum, I think would have been eternally fascinated. Also, the concerto lacks a true apoteose which makes it more interesting than fulfilling.
We spent some time in the GP balancing the concerto, and the result was very satysfying. Many details were blurred on account of the acoustics, but the orchestra played almost impeccably, and the inherent struggles and bright contrasts of the piece were extremely satisifying to follow in concert. 

Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" ended the concert, and as always with this piece (and most of Stravnisky's pieces to be honest) I was left feeling slightly dissapointed. You couldn't put a finger to the performance; the orchestra played with precision and enthusiasm, Schønwandt kept the spirit up and the piece flowing, and his tendency to push every allegro never tipped the barrel on this night, because the orchestra was able to honor it.
But, I would much rather hear the original material by Pergolesi than sit through 40 minutes of Stravinsky's static orchestration. Much less of a cerebral exercise than say "L'histoire du Soldat", "Pulcinella" is nonetheless still too full of those 'interesting' and 'daring' collage techniques that has since left many a music student scratching his head when trying to analyze structure and form of these sections of Stravinsky's pieces. You can't; you can only say "this goes here, and that goes there" and then leave it at that. I hate it when any composer is demonstrating technique over musical development, and I feel that's what happens too often with old Igor.
Also, of other composers exploring neoclassical elements at the time, I get infinitely more pleasure and fulfillment from both Prokoffiev and Britten.

The Sinfonia Concertante setup of Pulcinella is potentially interesting, but it requires that the Concertino (the smaller section of solistic players) is isolated and really treated as soloists, which was not the case for this evening's concert. The result is that whenever the Concertino-group has anything of interest, it's too often drowned out by the Ripieno (the tutti-section of the orchestra).
Also, whenever Stravinsky starts piling tonalities on top of eachother - like colorful legos - it never really leads somewhere interesting, but simply dissipates after 3-4 bars, and when the "Tarantella" drowns in the muddled orchestration, and when the winds embark on the dull 8-minute theme-with-variations towards the end of the piece, I am so dissinterested I start counting lightbulbs in the ceiling.
This evening, our trio of singers were not really a coherent unit, but it didn't bother me so much as the piece itself. I'm sorry, Stravinsky, you still only have a few pieces that keep me interested.

Ultimately, the test for any touring orchestra is whether or not it lives up to the standards expected in those cities it visits. The standards by which orchestras are measured in New York is obviously are pretty high, and as an orchestra, The Royal Danish Orchestra passed with flying colors.
I was not a personal fan of the repertoire choices, but I understand why an orchestra would hesitate to bring the truly great pieces to a city where the best orchestras of the world take turns playing them, and I guess projects like these get so caught up in political considerations that it would appear sacrilegous to not play at least two Nielsen pieces. What the "Pulcinella" is doing in any concert program, except make people hum along, laugh knowingly at the 'funny' doublebass solo, and consider themselves daring for accepting the more dissonant parts of the suite I can't say.

In #2 of "The Touring Test", I'll tell you why our performance of Poul Ruders' "Selma Jezkova" (the opera formerly know as "Dancer in the dark") was both a complete failure and a formidable success, but for now I'll leave you with this:
I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.
- Igor Stravinsky
Paradoxically, I could say the exact opposite about a lot of Stravinsky's music.

- Jesper

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