MEDITERRANEANIZING MUSIC IN CALIFORNIAN CLIMES: THE SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY IN BERLIN
MEDITERRANEANIZING MUSIC IN CALIFORNIAN CLIMES:
THE SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY IN BERLIN
Please do not be put off by the enigmatic title. I shall deal with the Nietzschean concept later. Arriving early enough in the evening of 1 September 2015, I decided to skip the first concert of the Berlin Music Festival 2015 on 3 September, as I would rather not be disappointed with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. (The critic of the “Cultural Radio” confirmed my fear.) Going to the second concert on 4 September was like a reunion: I was teaching at U.C. Berkeley in 1989-90 and went regularly to hear the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and I was not overly impressed then. The Chief Conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, was perhaps too intellectual for the Californian musicians and they responded with a kind of non-engagement, aloofness and even tedium at times. What I heard last night is a different story. Although on tour for an extended period, the San Franciscans showed no sign of fatigue: what once was a mediocre ensemble has now become a distinct musical organism of indubitable freshness and vitality. I was scared at first that they might have had to play to an empty house, knowing the local patriotism of the Berlin audience who normally fills the Philharmonie in 3 consecutive concerts with the same programme, if the orchestra happens to be their own Berlin Phil.. At 19:45 the hall was sparsely filled, and when the concert started at 20:00, only one-third of the hall was empty, which was not bad at all for a visiting foreign orchestra not so well known to the Berliners. One thing I did notice when I arrived rather early at 19:15: the musicians were already warming up. That is characteristic of American orchestral musicians: they are so conscientious. Compared to the London Symphony Orchestra – which, like other London orchestras, a sight-reading ensemble – the San Franciscans would appear to their British colleagues as a novice.
And the first item on the programme, Arnold Schönberg’s Variations, opus 43b (1944), did give me a fright. The musicians and their permanent conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, could not warm up to the idiom of late Schönberg at all. I am not talking about technical deficiencies, but more of the unconcealed indifference to the piece. But Schönberg and Mahler are the “compulsory” composers for this year’s Berlin Music Festival, so the San Franciscans had to follow the obligatory framework. With no formal training in music, I am in no position to judge whether the composition itself or the performers were at fault. There were some bright moments, though. After a complex contrapuntal exercise played by the strings, the woodwinds came in with a lyrical passage, and things seemed to brighten up after that. But the orchestra woke up too late. The whole piece was not impressive by any standard. As a student in Tübingen in the 1960s, I used to listen regularly to the South West German Radio, which had its own orchestra with Hans Rosbaud as its chief conductor, and believe it or not, he recruited a young Frenchman (who was disappointed with Paris) by the name of Pierre Boulez as his Assistant Conductor. Even in the hands of these experts, Schönberg did not always sound convincing to me. So my sympathy with the San Franciscans!
Upon further reflection I think I know why they did not take to the Schönberg piece. Of course, they were looking forward to the next item on the programme, Absolute Jest (A Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, 2011). The title may be a little misleading, for it is a work that is not to be treated lightly at all and demands absolute strengths on the part of the orchestra and the four soloists. I have rarely heard a very difficult work played with such conviction – and gusto. Everybody on stage seemed to be enjoying themselves and that enjoyment was contagious: the audience could not possibly resist it. Viewed from a “scholarly” angle, the composition is an examination piece for those who claim to know their Beethoven well, as it consists of innumerable quotations from Beethoven symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas, tied together with great artistry, while Adams adds on contributions of his own, particularly in the orchestral parts. The leading role played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet accounted also for the overall excellence. The piece started with a quotation from the Scherzo of Symphony No. 7, then moved on to No. 9 and then No. 8, interwoven with snippets from the late string quartets, plus the “Grosse Fuge”. I soon got lost, and just withdrew from the examination altogether, having given myself an F, only to continue to enjoy the inventiveness of the composer and the supreme musicality of the performers.
If this is a homage to the great European master by an American contemporary composer, it is not disrespectful as the title might suggest. The underlying philosophy is quite succinct: there is no way to sever the ties between past and present and the best way to pay one’s respect to our ancestry is to appropriate it in our own terms, in full cognizance of the originating identity and conditions. (If those aberrant theatre directors, especially in Germany, would care to learn from a true artist like John Adams, the stage of today would be in a much better shape.) What Adams does is more than composing variations on the theme(s) of Ludwig van Beethoven; he is fulfilling what Faust would like to achieve, but without success: “What you have inherited from your forefathers, acquire it, such that you will possess it”.) The applause that came at half time was very long and thunderous. Let us not forget: the Berlin music lovers are not usually taken in by non-Berlin orchestras. The San Franciscans (I rather like this name because it makes me think of those very devout monks of the Franciscan order) must have struck a very responsive chord with those few Berliners who came to hear them.
It was the right decision to conclude the concert with the Eroica Symphony – after all the signal used to alert passengers that the doors of local and underground trains are closing is none other than the first three notes of the main theme of the Eroica – What a musical city! The Berliners will not accept your version of the Eroica so easily – let foreigners be warned! Those addicted to the Teutonic grandeur associated with this symphony might even accuse the San Franciscans of misplaced levity. I do not think the interpretation offered by Tilson Thomas happened by default, but by design. I have been racking my brains trying to explain their approach to the Eroica, and suddenly that famous dictum of Friedrich Nietzsche dawned upon me, which he first expressed in French: “Il faut méditerraniser la musique.” (We must mediterraneanize music). The statement has its original context, namely Nietzsche’s turning away from Wagner to Bizet, and I do realize that it has to be used with care. Beethoven is what he is, but interpreters cannot with absolute certainly reconstruct exactly what the composer had in mind. They too have their context, their cultural background, though they must subject themselves at least to what they have interited, not merely the score but the continuity of performance traditions of the past two centuries. Recordings have preserved – faithfully or unfaithfully – what is believed (or imagined) to be the authentic Beethoven. Klemperer’s is perhaps the most authoritative – majestic, uncompromising, Teutonic in a positive sense, but around the same time, other conductors came up with their own interpretations of the Eroica, and I really love the versions conducted by the Bavarian maestro, Eugen Jochen, and by the Hungarian Ferenc Friscay (who unfortunately died young). The Mediterranean in Nietzsche’s sense is not a mere geographical concept, but also an attitude to life, and he mentions such attributes as nature, healthiness, youthfulness and virtue. We cannot make use of all of them here. What I heard in the evening of 4 September 15 made me think of nature, healthiness, and youthfulness. Symphony No. 3 must have, in the interpretation by the San Franciscans, been backdated by several years: it sounded youthful and “healthy”, in a metaphorical sense. There were signs of hope in it – the freshness of nature being its sustaining force. It was played with both gusto and elegance, never rough, veering more towards sophistication. In this sense, the affinity between the Mediterranean countries and California is not mere fiction; a kind of “mellow fruitfulness” (to borrow the words of the English poet John Keats) pervaded the performance, although the underlying weightiness of the essence of the symphony was not lost.
To realize the worldview I have outlined above, you need an orchestra of unusual musicality and sensitivity and a conductor of great perspicacity. They were there in the Philharmonie on Friday night. I noticed that they knew how to exploit the superb acoustics of the Phiharmonie; in other words, they were making discoveries as to the potential of a concert hall, which, alas, was absent from their own Symphony Hall in San Franscisco when I heard them two decades ago. The various sections of the orchestra blended together while their individual distinctiveness was maintained. Sitting behind the orchestra, I could observe how the conductor enjoyed working in this incomparable Philharmonie. He could draw those “Mediterranen” qualities from his orchestra and convince the audience that there are more dimensions to Beethoven than just the Teutonic straightjacket.
Now to the performance itself. The first movement gave the strings a chance to distinguish themselves with their mellifluous sound, definitely superior to the Berlin Phil on account of their perfect sense of ensemble, and on the whole the musicians of the various sections were listening to each other. When the woodwinds came in, I was delighted to hear the marked improvement, since this section was, 20 years ago, rather weak. The Germans love to talk about the “German sound” of their orchestra; and the San Francisco Symphony has a distinct sound of its own, un-German, not opulent, not marked by sombre depth, but bright and majestic in its own way, not in the least pompous. If the Eroica is situated at the borderline between Classicism and Romanticism, it was quite clear that this interpretation was forward-looking. As for the second movement, the Funeral March, some listeners could argue that it was not austere enough, but I did find it in keeping with the main concept of the entire symphony, with death being reflected upon and not necessarily a direct act of mourning. The contrapuntal parts were played with remarkable clarity and precision, far from lapsing into an academic exercise. The oboe solo was particularly moving. Having warmed themselves up with John Adams’ Absolute Jest, the musicians launched into the third movement (scherzo) with absolute confidence, the horns justifiably relishing their own prominence. The spritely rhythmic vitality of this movement came to the fore. If you want to see what “professional” conducting should look like, Michael Tilson Thomas could serve as a good model: with just about the right kind of physical movement to communicate with the musicians, unlike some star conductors who are prepared to turn themselves into clowns! The last movement based on the theme of Prometheus did not overplay the rebellious cause of the ancestor of man, but was more intent on reflecting the vicissitudes of life through the variety of moods, leading to a triumphant conclusion of the work.
It was on the whole a very musical rendering with the dramatic turns not being overemphasized, a deeply reflective reading marked by sobriety as befitting the Californian climes that could constructively demonstrate the “Mediterraneanizing” of the supposedly Germanic character of this music.
P.S. The concert was not reviewed in any Berlin newspaper or on the “Cultural Radio”. They must have thought this was just a mediocre orchestra, not listed among the top five!, namely, the Chicago, the Cleveland, the New York, the Boston and the Philadelphia.
5 September 2015