Morton Feldman


Cheana Nagavajara

I have known the London Symphony Orchestra for decades. It’s a very “professional” ensemble: they can play anything after 2-3 rehearsals. Sometimes the actual concert is just as good (or as bad) as the second rehearsal. By the time they get to the third rehearsal, they are already bored. Challenge them with a fiendishly difficult score, and they will sightread it like an open book.
Last night (6 September 2012) in the Philharmonie, they were given a demanding responsibility of playing an all-American repertoire. They discharged their responsibility with professional competence, but I could not sense for a single moment that the orchestra was enjoying the works they were playing, until the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, decided that the applause was loud and long enough to deserve an encore. So the last part of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” was given. The Londoners miraculously transformed themselves into a different orchestra, not only technically but also aesthetically. Yes, the orchestra came to life. Before that they were just fulfilling  their duty. London orchestras mostly “go to work”, and sometimes they get bored with their routine work. In the old days, some music lovers used to take the train to Manchester to hear the Hallé Orchestra, certainly not the finest instrument in the land, but a very, very musical ensemble, full of life and a sense of artistic commitment.

I may be rather unfair to the London Symphony, and to other London orchestras too, but since the golden age of recording is gone, who’s going to pay for those many rehearsals? But the Berliners did not deserve a better treatment than last night’s performance. Half of the Philharmonie was empty. There was no “canonic” work on the programme, (unlike on the previous night, graced by the Beethoven Violin Concerto). The audience, naturally, consisted of many young people (Berlin has 2 top-notch conservatories). These youngsters had a greater spirit of adventure than their elders. But I do insist that if the Berlin Philharmonic had been playing the same programme last night, the Philharmonie might have been full! Be that as it may, it was not the kind of programme that would normally attract a large crowd.

The concert began with Aaron Copland’s Orchestral Variations (1957) which go back to the piano version of 1930. It was a hard nut to crack for the uninitiated, and you have to possess some formal training to be able to grasp the essence of this work. An ordinary music lover like myself naturally found it unexciting, rather academic even. The musicians were playing the notes under the guidance of the conductor, but I had a feeling that they were not “with it” either. The work further exposed the weaknesses within the orchestra itself: the strings had a rough time trying to hang together and to keep in tune, while the wind and percussive instruments could assert themselves more easily. It was not a happy choice to introduce an all-American programme (unlike the more accessible Holiday Overture by Elliott Carter of the previous evening.)

The corrective came with the second work, Piano and Orchestra (1975), by Morton Feldman. Whether you agree with his artistic credo or not, you fully realize what he wants. I would even go so far as to say that Feldman’s concept of music is “prehistoric”. He wants to get back to the pristine state of “the sound”, in the same manner that Goethe was conceptualizing the “original plant” (Urpflanze). But how to convey this philosophic aspiration via a musical composition? Feldman maintained that this music has do do with the sound per se, and that the sound, in this sense, is ahistorical.

That was why he deliberately did not write a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, (which had had so many august predecessors), but composed a work entitled, Piano and Orchestra. (This coming Sunday another work of his called, “Violin and Orchestra”, will be performed in another concert hall, the “Konzerthaus”.) The piano and the orchestra are meant to conspire to transmit the composer’s philosophic message by way of music. Tone colours are the guiding principle of this piece. Of course, a sight-reading orchestra with very limited rehearsal time could not fully respond to the composer’s intentions. As for the soloist, you might wonder why it had become necessary to engage such a world-famous pianist as Emanuel Ax, as the piece did not call for pianistic virtuosity of any kind. But that absence of difficulty was more apparent than real.
Only great pianists could produce the sounds demanded by the composer. For example, he demands a kind of dynamics that only a master of the instrument can achieve. How does one produce a “decrescendo” on top of a “pianissimo”?: Emanuel Ax did his utmost to realize that. In spite of all this intellectualism and academicism, I found the music very intriguing.

When  all is said and done, I cannot help posing the question as to whether we can have the best of both worlds, namely expression of abstract principles as well as musical substance in the normal sense? My authority is, of course, my most revered Johannes Brahms. Just listen to the last movement of his 4th Symphony with it 32 variations. Each variation has a musical character of its own, and  – contrary to the belief of most people – a specific tone colour of its own. None other orchestra, in my experience, could bring that out better than our much underestimated Bangkok Symphony Orchestra under Hikotaro Yazaki. (I did write a review of that memorable concert, which to me was superior to many performances by well-known Western orchestras.)

The second half of the concert was more down to earth, Charles Ives’s A Symphony: New England Holidays. Just like in the previous 2 concerts, a huge orchestra with all kinds of percussive instruments, plus a choir, completely filled the stage the Philharmonie. “Special effects” were supplemented, with solo parts played by back-seat violinists, and another violinist placed among the percussive instruments. Music to be seen reinforced music to be heard – how innovative! <br>An Assistant Conductor was required to direct an orchestra within an orchestra. Snatches from well-known American marching music were occasionally woven into the main texture of the Symphony. Ives, being himself a very successful insurance executive, had no notion of economy. <br>A big choir was recruited to sit through almost the entire symphony only to have a chance to sing one stanza of 4 lines towards the end. (The Berlin management, being musically so conscientious [and financially affluent?], refused to tamper with the original score!)

Strangely enough, with all the gigantic instrumental and vocal forces deployed, Ives’s Symphony could not match Varese’s grandeur in the first concert on September 4. Most American composers we have heard are more oriented towards France. Had Ives been familiar with his contemporary Gustav Mahler, he would have learned the art of combining the mundane with the sublime. As it stands, this symphony is a noble and interesting experiment, and got performed much too late. There is something peculiarly American about the work, and one has to know “the small America”, the self-sufficient contentment of those inhabitants of American small towns with their own brand of “folk culture”, in order to be able to capture Ives’s filial bondage to his native country. An American conductor of the jet-set age would not have been able to instill that kind of spirit into an English orchestra.

The management made one wrong decision. They should have asked the St. Louis Symphony to take over the programme executed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The way the latter played Benjamin Britten as an encore simply proves that it may be a myth to say that music knows no nationality.




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