Late last week I spied a lone gem glistening in the rough of my inbox–an invitation to blog about the Saint Louis Symphony’s April 10 program in exchange for a pair of tickets. Though I consider myself a fairly regular SLSO attendee, capitalizing on their community initiatives (See Student Tickets and Fifty Free), I waffled on attending Saturday’s concert prior to the blog bribe. I had already seen the premiere of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, and I tend to dismiss Sibelius as occupying a space in 20th Century music analogous to that which Kenny G occupies in jazz.
I resolved that evening to release my simplistic grasp on the music of Sibelius and Prokofiev, and, meeting indeterminate success, I was surely aided by the incisive pre-concert lecture by David Roberston. Without exception I enjoy hearing Roberston speak. His lectures are a dense mesh of academic tangents, which is both praise for his scholarship and the reason I wouldn’t engage him in conversation when I’m late for a bus. He gets credit for making the sole remotely on-color reference to Nabokov’s Lolita I have ever heard. But what I really took away from the talk was a new way to frame the music of 20th century composers, like Sibelius, who clung to the pillars of tonality while the Second Viennese Samsons felled them.
The continuum from consonance to dissonance in composition does not linearly correlate with the timeline of the past century. More modern does not mean more dissonant. The push to inject music with a newly-envisioned take on tonality was greatly regionally-dependent in its inception. I don’t intend to say that Järvenpää, the birthplace of Johann Sibelius, was a quaint backwoods villa, but it probably wasn’t the epicenter of ideas that would upend the arts. Sibelius’s symphonies generate “newness” through a nuanced mastery of the form rather than overhauling the unities of style that predominated the 19th century. Bearing this in mind, I found my way to GC G41. It was just inside the door near the water fountain whose faux-alabaster glory makes me feel like I am fulfilling Ponce de Leon’s quest with every well-pressurized sip.
The evening began on a light note with a performance by a line of area schoolchildren involved in one of the many educational programs offered by the SLSO. Put bluntly, I found the performance far inferior to the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of “Pepperoni Twinkle Star”, but I suppose you have to start somewhere. The first scheduled work on the program was Rapture by Christopher Rouse, an appropriate jumping-off point since Rouse, and this work in particular, still engenders tonality in a modern context. The opening of the piece is a primal lilt between two whole tones in the low end, while winds arc above. This figure seemed to me uniquely American, almost hymnal, abetting the spiritual connotation of the title. A trumpet then leads a march through a cycle of diatonic chords that flirts with unorthodoxy but leads the ear seamlessly from one to the next. Then, the entrance of harp and chimes speaks to Rouse’s command of the sonic breadth of the orchestra. This sentiment is compounded at the finale when cascading horn lines spiral over gong blasts that swell and dampen quickly. It reminded me of the unnatural dynamics of hearing a tape reversed. This led me to ponder the hypothesis that present-day symphonic composers infuse their writing for traditional instrumentation with sound qualities drawn from the modern worlds of musique concrete, Moog synths, and Pro Tools. I also wonder if there had been any dialogue between Rouse and ideas in bebop and post-bop jazz. One part of the piece featured a clarinet soaring above the orchestra in pentatonic lines in a related but not equivalent key, and I could have sworn I saw the visage of Coltrane winking above the stage. On the whole, the piece was commendably entrancing.
To put in a few words about the Prokofiev, I was taken in by the physicality of violinist Gil Shaham. In the opening of the first movement, the lilting call and response of the minor theme breaks as the violin doubles its pace, bolstered by percussive bass. I recall Shaham stalking around in an almost predatory crouch as if to pounce on the accelerating passage. The second movement of the work seemed so spare and harmonically conservative that it, possibly intentionally, made the quick odd-meter dance rhythms of the third all the more engaging.
I really was disappointed by my mental conduct during the Sibelius. With firm intent, I tried to enjoy his Symphony No. 7 in C Major. I invoked Schoenberg, “There is still plenty of music to be written in C major.” But I wasn’t able to access it in the way I had hoped. I couldn’t help but think that during a time when much of the art sought to “epater la bourgeoisie”, Sibelius was writing “music to purchase capital and trade commodities to”. I now recognize that Sibelius will take repeated exposure and informed reading to appreciate. Or I could just attribute my lack of focus to pangs of regret over leaving the maraschino cherry in my Manhattan unconsumed during intermission.
The figurehead of the program, the Doctor Atomic Symphony, had a more dramatic impact on me this time around. It compiles much of what attracts me to John Adams’s music: rhythmically complex instrumental lines that interweave with one another to yield a fabric that is at once chaotic and entirely listenable. In line with my current reading, I draw a parallel between his music and the aesthetic of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet. Here the reader/listener is bombarded with such a quantity of detail and narrative entanglement that he or she is forced to pick and choose among the vast array to construct his or her own subjective account of the novel/symphony.
I find it particularly appropriate that Adams of all composers takes as subject the construction of the atomic bomb. The way in which the fragmented musical lines collide and spiral off one another is not entirely unlike the straying of neutrons in a nuclear chain reaction. This metaphor could be extended, with reservations, to the swath of repercussions nuclear proliferation would have on the political framework of the latter half of the 20th century. An interesting feature in this work that I had not heard before in Adams was bowed cymbals, which produce an eerie humming. This sound comes less from the touch of a musician and more from the resonant material properties of the metal itself. It suggested to me the equally eerie connection to waning humanity and compassion as the bomb is constructed in the machine-driven technological age. The finale of Doctor Atomic is perhaps the most unnerving part of its historical reflection. A driving percussive string figure marks the approach of zero hour. Then a softer, contemplative segment follows as if it were music heard from afar, watching the detonation from the white sands around the Trinity site. Then the jarring percussive figure returns, like a resignation. There is no turning back; man has been made destroyer of worlds.
Is this work is an important piece of the collective memory of the gravity of this event? Or is it part of a process to cope with a dark moment in American history? When history is transmuted into art, I feel it cannot help but absorb some of the fictive quality of the art. An emotional context forms that would never have sprung from the primary sources. It is obviously important to disentangle the expression by Adams from the factual events. Could you attempt to tell the story of Hiroshima strictly with Penderecki’s Threnody? It is a chance to remind ourselves that, along with artistic artifact, we must remember in ways more real and whole.
Many thanks to Eddie Silva with SLSO publications for facilitating this event.
Thomas is a DJ on KWUR 90.3-FM. Hear more bombast Monday evenings from 10pm-12am on “The Copium”, a program of 20th Century music.