The groundhog was right. No signs of spring at all during my four-week trip to Europe. Maybe they should try Katowice Katy instead of Punxsutawney Phil.
I am not exactly sure why we did it, but in Lyon it was decided that we would undertake a two-week Scandinavian Festival. This provided an opportunity to revisit a couple of symphonies that I dearly love as well as one new piece that was most enjoyable to conduct and play. Sibelius seems to go in and out of fashion, and today we have a number of Finnish conductors who have brought him back to life.
There is a special place in my heart for Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Although it was the Second Symphony that first caught my attention, that piece was connected to a world that seemed of an earlier generation. With his Fourth Symphony, Sibelius leaped into a new world, and the Fifth expanded on this new vision but in a very different way. Maybe it was the buzzing bees in the early part of the first movement, or the prolonged silences at the conclusion, but when I first encountered this work on recording, I was captivated.
It doesn’t show up frequently on my programs, but clearly the festival gave me the chance to bring it back. We performed the revised version, the one usually played. The lengthy accelerando is always tricky, but—for you conductors out there—it is helpful to rehearse this whole section once without speeding up. It helps the orchestra understand the phrase structure, and that way they are not so concerned with counting rests at incredibly fast tempi.
The second movement, that wonderful combination of simplicity and a lesson in how to use the interval of the seventh, is very gratifying to conduct. And that finale! My approach tends to look back a bit to the performances of Ormandy and Karajan, so the speed is not quite as quick as my younger colleagues who lead the work now. Of course, with an audience unfamiliar with the piece, there is always the danger of premature applause between the final five chords. I just kept conducting during the silences, and that pretty much kept the public in check.
The Grieg Piano Concerto does not come up for me so often either. In my early days, it was ubiquitous, with at least one performance somewhere each season, mostly by students. The Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland played with an obvious understanding of the work’s poetic elements as well as the requisite virtuosity. Opening the program was a piece I knew from childhood, Alfvén’s Swedish Rhapsody. I found it a bit trite now, although entertaining. Maybe I need to spend more time in the suburbs of Stockholm.
On the second program, a Swede of a different kind opened the concert. I had heard a couple pieces by Anders Hillborg but had never before conducted any of his music. Beast Sampler is a bit of an anomaly in his output, showing traces of Ligeti and Penderecki, but it makes a great impression. The sound world he creates is imaginative and holds one’s attention throughout the work. This is a piece, and a composer, I will return to.
Elina Vähälä made her Lyon debut with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. After a couple of performances of the Corigliano with her, I wanted to continue this musical relationship and was not disappointed. We elected to play the revised version here, as I am just not convinced about the original. I will be working with her again two more times this season, once in Honolulu and the other time in Helsinki, where she will play the Bernstein Serenade.
Rounding out the first week of the festival was a visit to another Fifth Symphony, this one by Carl Nielsen. Certain aspects of the piece remind me of Charles Ives. How else to think of the improvised snare-drum cadenza and the unusual harmonic turns in the finale? Lots of notes for the strings, but they really came prepared for the rehearsals. In the end, both orchestra and public were highly enthusiastic about the performance and the piece.
The second week was devoted to a single work, but it was also one of the biggest projects ever undertaken by the ONL. In the past, when we have done projects that involved either operatic forces or elements of stage design, the productions have been imported. That was the case last season with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. This time we self-produced a multimedia version of Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Everyone knows at least three of the pieces that form part of the two suites put together by the composer. But there is almost an hour and fifteen minutes of music that accompanies the play.
The very creative Lyonnaise team made great use of the large stage, and the dialogue was spoken in French with the singing done in Norwegian. Without an intermission, the performance lasted almost two hours. More than likely, if one did the whole play and all the incidental music, it might take three days. In the end, the orchestra musicians were the heroes, growling their way through the Hall of the Mountain King and elegantly presenting Anitra’s Dance. Two sold-out houses attested to the interest among the public for these types of ventures.
There was one sad moment, as I had to say goodbye to my artistic partner in musical crime, Christian Thompson. He and I developed a wonderful working relationship as well as a lovely friendship over these past few years. He is going to Stockholm to head up the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and I wish him all the best. But now he will have to deal with Alfvén more than I.
The next stop was Berlin, that incredibly vibrant city with a wealth of musical performances daily. As has been the case for the past two decades, I was working with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, the ensemble created by German Radio many years ago. These days, they have become a strong rival to the Philharmonic, with innovative programing and extensive touring. My role with them is usually to bring at least one work that is new for the orchestra and even the city.
This time it was a new Violin Concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis. Our soloist for the single performance we gave at the Philharmonie was James Ehnes, for whom the piece was written. To say that this work is fiendishly difficult for the violinist is not an overstatement. However, it is also very complex for the orchestra. James, playing from memory, was simply astonishing, capturing every nuance both emotionally and physically. The orchestra and I spent a lot of time and care putting it together. We all wished that we had a second chance to perform it, but more and more, European orchestras are opting for single presentations.
The bookends were familiar, and I suppose that this was one reason that we had an almost sold-out house. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains popular in Germany, but not just because of Walt Disney. Every school child knows the poem by Goethe on which Dukas based his piece. If memory serves me correctly, there are only two broomsticks that come to life before the young wizard is given his comeuppance.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations closed out the evening. We had a lot of work to do balancing the ensemble, as they do not rehearse where the concert takes place. That only occurs for the dress rehearsal. In the studio space in the Rundfunk Haus, you can only go so far, not knowing how certain voices will sound in the more resonant acoustic. In the end it worked out very well, and we were certainly happy to have the fine organ available for the final couple minutes.
The last week in March week saw me back in Poland, and again, at least for the rehearsals, in Katowice. The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is a participant in the Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw, but there were none of Ludwig’s works on my program. Instead, not only because the concert occurred three days before the Easter holiday, but also because Passover coincided, we paired two works, beginning with Ravel’s incredible “Kaddish” sung by soprano Martina Janková.
Just as the Ravel concluded, I launched into the aggressive G-natural tremolo that begins Mahler’s Second Symphony. Connecting these two pieces in this way worked even better than I imagined, with an almost gasping sound coming from the audience. Some of that surprise might have been because I do not have the chorus onstage for the first movement. Since Mahler requested a pause of at least five minutes between the first and second movements, filling the time with the singers coming onstage works quite well.
Bernarda Fink was the excellent mezzo in “Urlicht,” and the orchestra was simply overwhelming in its emotional expression of the score. Having performed this piece often now, I have realized that it is not really the technical aspect of managing the large forces that is difficult. Rather it is the structure of the piece, moving movement by movement from one world to the next. By the time the chorus makes its first entrance—seated—we come to a place of magic and, ultimately, joy. All through the piece I thought about Gil Kaplan, this being the first time I had performed the work since he passed away. He would have some quibbles with parts of what I did with the piece, but overall, I thought he was smiling.
This past month saw a few articles appear that had to do with how we define who we are as musicians. The term “Maestro” has now come under scrutiny, mostly to do with the sad developments regarding conductorial abuse. But for me, the reasons are suspect as regards the meaning of the word. Usually used to refer to a conductor, it really is about those people—in any profession—who possess skills that take them far above anyone else in their field. For me, I reserve it only for a very few. I know it is a term of respect, but when people refer to me with that title, I am always taken aback. Toscanini, Furtwängler, Szell, Reiner and others, now those were maestros. It would be my wish that we put this term away for a while, unless the next Bernstein appears and sustains the greatness throughout his or her career.
There was also some discussion regarding what kind of music an orchestra plays. Calls for ridding the world of the term “Classical” music sprang up. This is understandable, as the word refers to several kinds of music. It can used to describe a specific period in music history; the majority of works played by a symphony orchestra; or pieces by dead, white, European, male composers. The implication of this term seems, to some writers, to be one of the reasons we do not see so many young people in the audience.
But what should we actually call it? Most orchestras play so many varieties of music that categorization is almost necessary to inform the listener of what style they might be hearing. Chamber music is clearly for smaller ensembles, but these days, many of those groups are performing music that defies genre. When we play a Pops concert, we are a long way from what Arthur Fiedler did, combining familiar works from the orchestral repertoire with arrangements of songs of the day. When was the last time you heard the First Romanian Rhapsody by Enescu?
Even music written today has to do battle with how it is marketed. Is there a difference between contemporary and modern music? I think so, but it depends on how one listens. Just because a piece was written a few days ago does not make it modern, depending on the style that the composer utilizes. For example, when I write, my music is hardly difficult to listen to. I refer to them as recently written, leaving stylistic terms out of the mix.
It is complicated, but we do have to have a word that works, and for me, even though it can be construed as misleading, “classical” seems to serve us best. Everyone seems to understand what it means, even when the pieces being played by an orchestra defy the actual term. Maybe some of you have a better idea.
See you next month,