Another quality evening spent last night at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The headline piece was Pines of Rome. Here’s the bill:
Symphony No. 5
Piano Concerto No. 2
Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma)
I’d heard the DSO perform Pines of Rome last year at their Disney’s Fantasia concert. We got these tickets because we didn’t know they were also doing selections from Fantasia 2000. We kept these tickets because not only is it a good piece, but… Beethoven! One does not say no to Beethoven. Turns out that would have even more meaning for this performance than I might have guessed.
Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 5 had its world premiere right in front of us. Isn’t that cool? We got to hear the very first public performance of this work. Rouse’s music has been heard on the DSO’s stage before, and indeed this one was co-commissioned with two other organizations. The way it’s been described, Prof. Rouse is going to be one of those names strongly associated with classical of the late 20th / early 21st century. What’s more, the DSO does these pre-show lectures in the basement where those who want to attend can learn a little insight into the works being performed tonight. We were lucky enough to have Prof. Rouse himself attend and to ask him questions about how it is he’d like us to approach this brand new symphony.
Prof. Rouse is one of those people who is an absolute joy to hear. He’s soft-spoken with a great sense of humor. By his account, he plays no instruments. But his primary influence into becoming a composer is hearing his very first piece of music: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Rouse’s own 5th is his way of saying “thank you” for the inspiration. That right there tells you a great deal of what we might expect from this, however, expressions of music have changed considerably since Beethoven broke the rules — with that particular symphony, I might add.
So what could we expect? Prof. Rouse’s music reflects the dissonance of modern life as he sees it. Based on what he was saying, Arnold Schoenberg is likely a heavy influence on his work. As his career has progressed, his work has become less dissonant, but all of his work shows movement between the consonant and dissonant, designed to trigger an emotional connection in the listener. He’s also aware that this isn’t to taste of most concert goers, modern music being anathema to many ears, but he’s confident that those who give him a try might find something to appreciate somewhere. And that’s all he asks, to give him the chance to make that connection. More than fair, right? And as he put it, “If you don’t like it, you’ve got Beethoven and Respighi to cleanse your palette.”
When I approach music like this, dissonance fights against my mental override system. Rather than connect to the music emotionally, I will sit there and logically try to figure out what the composer is doing, which goes against what Prof. Rouse would ask of us. That sort of thing requires that I spend some more time with the piece and let it soak in on that emotional level. Obviously it’s not going to happen in one sitting, more’s the pity. But at least I went in knowing what to expect, and knowing what to listen for, which does help immensely. In his ode to Beethoven, the opening rhythm of Beethoven’s 5th (da-da-da-DUM) is used throughout all four movements of Rouse’s 5th, but not as Beethoven did. This comes across more as machine gun fire in the first movement. Really, the entire first movement does. Then it slows down in the middle, and speeds back up to a faster but not quite as frantic pace. I’m still processing it myself. My sister said it reminded her of her commute from work. Mad dash out the door, stuck in heavy traffic, everyone around you is pissed off, then the traffic slows down to a crawl, then picks up slowly on the other side of the congestion, then the last stretch home is more comfortable. I love this analogy. It helped me a lot, and it really did seem spot-on with what I heard.
And what I did love most about it, the dissonance was tempered by his (by his own words) treat to himself of the inclusion of two harps. Who am I to say no to that? I love harps. They were used sparingly, but it really did take the edge off and add some interesting color to the mix.
After that was the intermission, wherein they repositioned the stage and rolled out the grand piano for Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2. This is one of the maestro’s early works, and you can hear the first movement has a lot in common with Mozart, but when we get past that first movement, you really start to hear Beethoven’s signature style. Then the third movement is where he struggled and didn’t write anything down for a number of years, probably performing the piano solo himself for all those years because nobody else at the time could do it (and to show off his skills and get more students so as to pay the bills). Turns out, this was the first concerto Beethoven wrote, but he liked what he did with the next one better, so he put that one forward as his first opus while he struggled with this one. Even so, it’s become a standard part of the repertoire for the most obvious reason of all: Beethoven wrestled it to the ground and beat it into submission, so it comes across as everything we’ve come to associate with him.
Our guest piano god of the evening was Emanuel Ax, “Manny” to pretty much everyone at the symphony. This guy really enjoyed what he was doing, and he offered a light touch to those keys without sacrificing any of Beethoven’s virtuosic style. The effect was extraordinary. It’s the kind of thing that really makes you appreciate how far the construction of a piano has come from Beethoven’s time, mostly due in part to Franz Liszt needing it to be stronger to play Beethoven. I never get tired of thinking about that sort of thing.
A brief, lesser intermission followed to reset the stage once more for the showpiece of the night. And it was the showpiece, make no mistake.
In the lecture, we were given the ideas of what to listen for, of course, from the dissonance to the kinds of pines being portrayed and the parts of Italy being portrayed, and so on. We were also encouraged to think of it in terms of time of day. The opening movement is afternoon, with kids playing; the second is twilight through a graveyard, with a little light but not much; the third is night and all the mystery that comes with it; and the final movement is the rising of the sun. Interesting way of looking at it, and it works, except I never think about the ghost army of ancient Roman soldiers marching through morning. Another point, and I never really thought about this before… even though musical notation is written in Italian, most symphonic work is formed by the Austrian / German world… until Respighi. This piece, Pines of Rome, is what put Italian symphonic works on the world stage for the first time. Well, it’s easy to see why.
As I say, I’ve heard the DSO play this before, as part of the Fantasia concert. Here’s the thing to understand: the piece in the film is heavily abridged, the full piece running about 26 minutes, and the arrangement isn’t up to full level because theater surround sound in 1999 (and even today) still isn’t up to the levels it needs to be to pull this off. In other words, a live performance of Pines of Rome will literally blow away any technological reproduction. The Fantasia performance we got reflected that, so this was an interesting contrast. The only thing I can think of that comes close to this power is Tchaikovsky’s 1812, and that’s only when they use real cannon fire to wreck your sound system.
The little secret is that Respighi wrote Pines of Rome as one of the first to use electronic enhancement. Not too shabby for 1936. In other words, recorded birdsong in the middle (which sounded completely lifelike so some were looking around for actual birds), followed by the grand finale where the ghost army of Roman soldiers marches through backed by the trumpets and trombones up on the balcony blasting out the audience and the giant pipe organ on the back wall pulsing through all of us like an ethereal presence looking to take possession of our bodies. That pipe organ master-classed Tchaikovsky’s cannon fire. You could feel your soul fighting for dominance in your own body. I feel like there should have been a warning for anyone with a pacemaker, because this is beyond doubt and beyond hyperbole the biggest thing I’ve ever heard performed on a stage. I commented that I felt like I had sandal marks on my back from where the ghost army marched across, and other patrons enthusiastically agreed. How powerful? There was a line in the gift shop after the show to purchase the Naxos recording of the piece. Seriously. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen that happen. I walked into this concert with this piece already being one of my favorites. I walked out with it being ranked even higher.
Suffice it to say, this is a performance that I will never forget, for all the right reasons.
Just an aside, and I don’t know why I never put this together before… I think the finale of this piece might have influenced John Williams’ Superman score, specifically his motif for “The Planet Krypton.” Just a little bit.