It seems weird to me to attend a concert on a Thursday night. As I looked around the concert hall, I came to the random conclusion that I was one of the youngest people there, and I’m in my 40s. It made me wonder how many such performances some of the other patrons had heard, and how they compared with the concerts provided these days. At any rate, it was a quality performance. The DSO does this thing for their classical concerts, which I wish they’d do for their pops series as well, where they’ll hold a lecture in one of their basement lounges to discuss the history and interesting aspects of the pieces being performed that evening.
Two of the things they stressed this evening were the conductor and principal French horn player. You don’t get to be one of the top orchestras in the world without having the assets in the orchestra to make that happen.
Our conductor for the evening was Karina Canellakis. I’ve seen her conduct before. She was the assistant conductor for Jaap van Sweden, and she had to sub for him for a weekend of Shostakovich, which got noticed in a big way. Her meteoric rise in the field after that took her on a global tour to conduct pretty much everywhere, and this show marks a kind of homecoming. If anyone ever wants to see what a conductor can bring to a performance, one only has to watch her in action. She’s full of youthful energy, and I noticed something that separates her from many of the conductors I’ve watched: she smiles. She truly enjoys what she’s doing. I’m sure such is the case with every conductor I’ve seen, but she doesn’t try to hide it. Instead, she injects that into the orchestra, and they most definitely draw from it. We’re fortunate to have her return for this one. To have her bring that energy to Beethoven… perfect. More on that as we get there.
Our lead horn was David Cooper. This is, sadly, his final season with the DSO. He’s been snatched up by the Berlin Philharmonic. To put this into proper perspective, back when I was in high school band, our conductor was a French horn player. He put in our minds this idea of the horn’s superiority and versatility that, while I didn’t quite buy it from him due to obvious biases, it was difficult to argue either. It’s just that a high school marching band is hardly the proper showcase for an instrument like this. Cooper is a master of his craft. Across the years from there to here, I’ve learned to appreciate most of the instruments in the orchestra and their usage across the ages, and the horn comes as one of those rarified treats that has to be experienced to be understood. No less majestic than a trumpet, but somehow more mature due to its muted and more rounded tone quality, combined with the fact that (due to the shape of the instrument) you won’t have one blasting its music straight at you. Or so I thought. More on that when we get there too.
The full lineup for this concert is as follows:
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
R. STRAUSS – Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 11
BARTÓK – Concerto for Orchestra
When it comes to Beethoven, most assume he’s the perpetual grumpy old man. I’ve heard it said from fellow patrons that he was never a child, that he was hatched as a grumpy old man. Obvious hyperbole aside, I think anyone who truly appreciates Beethoven understands that, like anyone else, he had his good days too. His music is full of joy if you know where to listen (“Ode to Joy,” anyone?), and once you get to a point of understanding with the composer and his music, you can start to find the humor.
Beethoven composed his symphonies in pairs for the most part. For example, the 5th and 6th premiered the same night and deal with opposite ideas. The 5th marks his struggle with and triumph over fate, while the 6th (my personal favorite) describes a walk in the countryside. The 7th and 8th are expressions of yin and yang if ever there was one. The 7th is dark and melancholy, while the 8th, although being a good half hour shorter, is the maestro’s personal joke on the world. It opens with the musical equivalent of a beer hall laugh. In the same movement, he works in a blast of C-sharp, which is the exact “wrong”note for anyone listening to an F major composition. Even if you don’t know music, it’s hard to miss this. It’s an “ugly note” that just stands out on its own, calling attention to itself. And then he does it again. And again, leaning on it just to make the point that not only did he mean to do that, his audience isn’t smart enough to keep up. In those days, that’s probably true. Makes me wonder what he’d think about this idea of equal temperament scales. The second movement pokes fun at the metronome, which was an “infernal” invention of a good friend of his who also created many of Beethoven’s ear horns. Audiences and orchestras in that time and for a while to come simply didn’t get this movement, and it was often replaced with the second movement of the 7th symphony on account. It says more about the people than Beethoven, I think, and these days it’s almost never replaced. The third movement outright stabs at the ever-popular minuet form by having the instruments phase in and out of sync with one another so that anyone trying to dance to it will trip over themselves due to false downbeats. The final movement gives us a most jovial expression that should serve as the final word on this idea that Beethoven had no other state of being beyond sourpuss. He had a hard life and a hard fate to fight against, but he still tried to find something positive in his world. It’s a good reminder, especially since the 8th isn’t one that’s performed often. It’s also a reminder that this is a man who quite literally turned his back on royalty, so he really didn’t give a damn what the rest of us think. He knew he was great. He knew what that actually meant, contrary to some middling self-estimations by the likes of contemporaries such as Napoleon Bonaparte. The rest of us just occupy the world Beethoven influenced, and we’re lucky to have his genius.
Naturally, you can’t play something this without positive energy, and as I said, that’s exactly what Karina Canellakis brought to the podium. I could not have asked for better. The orchestra was in top form, and everyone legitimately seemed to be having a great time. I do have to admit to being thrown off a bit by the placement of the piece. Usually the showcased piece is performed last, after the intermission. In this case Bartók’s Concerto was after the intermission, with Beethoven performed right up front. Not to make this sound wrong, but that’s practically an invite for those who only came for the Beethoven to find their cars after the intermission, and that’s actually what happened. We lost about a quarter of the audience at that point. But at least they stayed for the Strauss piece.
Oh, the Strauss piece. Strauss was 18 when he composed this one, having already been composing at that point for 12 years. Give that a think and see if it doesn’t mess with your mind a bit. His father was principal horn for the Court Opera at Munich and one of the finest musicians of the era, so when young Richard needed someone to test his piece, he turned to the man who inspired him to write it. Richard understood the quirks, strengths, and limitations of the instrument backwards and forwards, perhaps too well. When presented to his father to play it, the elder Strauss complained that it was impossible, too difficult for the horn.
Fast forward to last night. David Cooper proved otherwise in what can only be called a flawless performance. This piece really sucks you in with its lyrical beauty before showing off. And when it does, it’s shows off the piece, the performer, and the horn itself. Cooper took the stage next to the podium, and at intervals he’d turn so the bell was facing the audience so that even muted by his hand, you still got the full force of it. While I listened, that’s when I thought back to my old band director’s comments on the instrument. It all came back around in a way that really made me appreciate what I was hearing, and what I’d heard in all those intervening years.
Aesthetically pleasing as it was to the ear, visually was another matter. As a (former) musician myself, I understand the technical aspects behind things such as instrument maintenance, which for brass players means the unfortunate need to remove spit from valves. To maximize the performance to the ear, Cooper was cleaning out that horn at every opportunity. And to his credit, he didn’t seem the least embarrassed by it. It was merely something that needed to happen, and he was as unintrusive about it as he could be even at center stage. He was completely silent about it, pulling the horn apart and putting it back together like an infantry soldier with a rifle. And damned if he didn’t smile the whole time, even bigger than our conductor. He knew the piece he had, he knew his skills, and he gave the performance of a lifetime.
That both Canellakis and Cooper are younger than I am really made me start dwelling yet again on that bittersweet idea of the road not travelled. Regrets? I’m full of them, but I also admit I don’t have that kind of drive to excellence that got them to where they are.
After the intermission, Bartók’s concerto took the stage, and so did twice the amount of orchestra.
It didn’t even occur to me how many people weren’t there until suddenly they were. This concerto is one of the composer’s most popular and accessible works, and it still sounds alien to many who aren’t accustomed to music of the early-to-mid 20th century. There’s a reason the Broadway stage musical took hold as the popular music of the age, eventually overtaken by jazz and rock. As much as Beethoven changed the rules, Stravinsky changed them further, and audiences sometimes struggle with the sounds of the age as the composers far exceeded the understanding of audiences. For myself, I’ve grown accustomed and more appreciative of such things, in large part due to my interest in film scores. Sounds bizarre until you consider that Shostakovich, Korngold, and a great many others of the era made a living doing that sort of thing. And my introduction to Stravinsky was Disney’s Fantasia. With Bartók, this was a slow appreciation for me. I’d catch the tail end of a piece on the radio and wonder what I was hearing, and then the announcer would say it was Bartók. Over time the name stuck, and I eventually sought out the composer’s work. I actually own his complete catalog of works now, though I admit that I don’t listen to him nearly as often as I sometimes think I should as my love for Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and John Williams tends to just steamroll over a great many others. At any rate, Bartók is one who represents a bit of a struggle on my part to appreciate, but I’ve come to do so, and I take a bit of pride in that accomplishment. This concerto is the first time I’ve heard his work performed live.
The concerto is presented in five parts that run across so many different styles and variations that, if you know what you’re listening to, it’ll make your head spin. There’s enough in it that I am at a loss to explain at a technical level simply because I lack the vocabulary and musical training to do so. It’s designed to be heard, I think, at a more cerebral level than an emotional one, but Bartók still puts his emotional core into it. He also puts forth his own musical appreciation. If you know what to listen for, you can hear Bach fugues, folk songs, birdsong, “night music,” some tonal (and atonal) experimentation, and a poke at Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. On this latter point, it’s important to note that Bartók had great respect for Shostakovich, but he considered this symphony a celebration of state violence. When you consider that Bartók fled his Nazi-threatened homeland in 1940 and lived in the United States for the last five years of his life, and that this was composed in 1943, it’s pretty easy to understand his musical commentary.
Overall, the piece is mostly soft, which is interesting considering the size of the orchestra needed to play it. It leaves you wondering why all those players are there until it swells to full power. The finale of the piece is, in a word, a showstopper. But of course it means very little if you’ve spent the first half hour wondering what it is you’re listening to. Makes me very glad I’ve come to understand and respect it over time. Also makes me a little sad to know that most listeners will not go through the time or effort to do so. When such a piece is presented by a master level orchestra as it was here, the end result is that in the midst of the applause you can hear grumblings and commentary from the audience of “what did I just hear?” or “that made no sense whatsoever” or “that was just terrible.” At least the audience applauded the technical mastery needed to perform it? I sometimes wonder what it would be like if modern concert audiences were taught how to appreciate Bartók’s work. Would it catch on? Or would it still be too challenging for the average ear? I can’t say. All I know is that, as I say, this is one of Bartók’s most accessible works for ears not attuned to what he offers, and it’s still difficult, perhaps made more difficult in following the far more accessible Beethoven and Strauss. But I appreciated what I heard all the same. It was a rare opportunity for me to really test my understanding, and it highlighted the idea that I still have much to learn. Probably always will, and that’s not necessarily a problem. It also makes me stand in awe of the men and women on that stage who do understand it and can perform it to the level they can achieve.