THE DEATH OF AN ORCHESTRA: THE CONCERTGEBOUW MUST NOT DIE
THE DEATH OF AN ORCHESTRA: THE CONCERTGEBOUW MUST NOT DIE
(Mariss Janssons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)
Berlin, 12 September 2014
While the Concertgebouw Orchestra was giving another stunning performance in the Philharmonie of Berlin on 6 September 2014, music lovers had been informed that the money that supports the orchestra will run out in 2016. So far no campaign has yet been launched to save it. How can the Dutch let their world-class orchestra die? Is this really their internal problem? Of course, they have been quarrelling among themselves whether maintaining a symphony orchestra saps away public funds that could better be spent on public welfare. Does this orchestra belong only to the Dutch community? Seriously, why don’t they emulate our otherwise “failed state” in turning to manufacturers of alcoholic beverages and ask them to donate a few million? Or don’t they have an ex-prime minister who has become so rich as to be able to “buy” an orchestra (like a football team) and reorganize it in such a way as to ensure its longevity? Or why don’t they seek advice from the management of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra?
The music that the Concertgebouw produced in its concert in the Philharmonie that night gave absolutely no sign of imminent death. The musicians were as musical, inspired and committed as ever. The permanent conductor, Mariss Jansons, who is soon to complete his term and does not wish to have it extended, was in top form as he always is. Are we to blame him for leaving a sinking ship? But we should know that he is already 71 and suffered a heart attack on the rostrum a few years ago while conducting the opera La Bohème. How could the musicians maintain their sangfroid and get so absorbed in the music they were playing without worrying about their uncertain future? I have written 2 reviews of their Berlin performances, one in 2012 and one in 2013, and would like to recall at this point the title of the first review: “The Concertgebouw is the real thing”. Such is the power of music that transcends earthly bonds. And I am not exaggerating.
The concert on 6 September 2014 started with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn. Allow me to digress a little on the role of variations in Brahms’ music. The orchestra and the conductor who enlightened me on the significance of this musical form was none other than the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and its then chief conductor, Ikotaro Yazaki. The 30 variations constituting the 4th movement of Symphony No. 4 are a remarkable feat of inventiveness, with each variation marked by a characteristic of its own that keeps the listener awake and makes him curious as to what will come next. Besides, these variations are imbued with by very fine nuances in tone colours that can at any time nullify the charge by Brahms’ detractors that his music lacks tone colours. And the BSO during its golden days under a dedicated permanent conductor could bring out such fine differentiations.
I am not so stupid as to compare the technical competence of the BSO with that of the Concertgebouw, but I am emphasizing the greatness of Brahms that only a very able conductor can convey, and Yazaki could achieve that with a Thai orchestra! Yet, Bramhs’ Symphony No. 4 is a mature work, whereas the Variations on a Theme by Haydn is Brahms’ early entry into the orchestral world (that definitely promises much.) Mariss Jansons knew how well the young Brahms had been schooled, and treated him with love and respect. It was a pleasure to observe how he moulded all parts of the composition into shape and how he linked them together. A set of variations must have variety, and the Concertgebouw and its conductor seemed to be enjoying themselves in creating that variety. One virtue of this great orchestra is its sensitivity: it responds almost instinctively to the conductor’s prompting, and the conductor needs not put on any acrobatic act in order to get what he wants. In 2013, it came to Berlin with its a principal guest conductor, Daniele Gatti, and the Concertgebouw, while retaining its own distinct character, responded perfectly to the guidance of the Italian conductor. In short, Mariss Jansons’ interpretation of Brahms was quite straightforward: this was the music of a young man who was blessed with great intellectual power, but who could any time melt your heart. Not in this piece, though, for the task of writing variations was still partly reverential, so he had to remain somewhat austere, but the sound that came out of the orchestra prefigured the coming of a great Romantic.
The second item on the programme was Wolfgang Rihm’s (born 1952) Lichtes Spiel. Ein Sommerstück für Violine und kleines Orcheser (which I shall loosely translate as “Light Play. A Summer Music or Violin and Small Orchestra” ) The composer plays with the world “light”, which can mean light as well as luminous, its sound recalling another German word “leicht”, which means “light” in the sense of “easy”. So it all amounts to a disarming strategy on the part of the composer who offers you some “light music” to be enjoyed, now that nature has blessed you with summertime. And it can certainly be enjoyed. Experts say that this is not one of Rihm’s best works. The audience on September 6, 2014 must have thought otherwise. As for me, it reminds me of Debussy, being thoroughly an impressionistic piece. Jansons could have thought along the same line. Although the musicians had to concentrate hard on every note, observing the additional markings by the composer, the listeners could relax. The soloist, the Greek violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, was intent on blending his exquisite violin sound with that of the orchestra. It is difficult to describe the substance of the piece: the variety of sounds, of dynamics, is perhaps not meant to convey a message, but to create moods. For a 21st century piece, some critics may think that it is not avantgardist enough. “An easy piece for easy listening” seems to be the motto that the composer has in mind. But those poor musicians, the soloist and the conductor had to exert themselves in an extraordinary way in order to realize the intention of the composer to provide enjoyment for the listeners. This is a paradox really, for a difficult score seeks to ensure easy listening. The Concertgebouw discharged its responsibility with utmost integrity. How could an orchestra like this be disbanded! Shame (on whom?)
The second half of the concert was devoted to Richard Strauss, and here I have to make a confession: I have never been able to take his tone poems as vehicles for a philosophical message. The telling of tales like Till Eulenspiegel which concluded the programme is something that I can immensely enjoy. But Strauss’s aspiration towards philosophical seriousness is beyond me. Why has he not used the operatic medium to convey philosophical messages, for there his command of the genre is beyond question? Why does he not emulate Wagner in opera? To convey a philosophical message and to induce you to think philosophically are two different things. Any music lover who listens to Beethoven’s late string quartets and late piano sonatas cannot deny that Beethoven’s music of this period conditions you to think philosophically. Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, which began the second half of the concert, is a case in point. Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw had made up their mind to play the tone poem as a great orchestral demonstration, whereby the possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra were exploited to the full – beautiful music, just that! I applaud the approach taken by the conductor and the orchestra as much as I physically applauded their superlative performance. I must conclude by repeating the statement I made in 2012: “The Concertgebouw is the real thing”. We can’t let it die.