12 October 2012
If I had known what was on the program, I should have stayed at home. I didn’t want to go out; I was feeling a bit gassy, and still pale and blank from the previous day’s strange hangover. Kathleen couldn’t go, for a handful of very good reasons. But when I totted up the excuses, they didn’t add up to much, and I bore in mind that the responsibility to attend concerts for which one has purchased tickets is not so much a financial one (there is no waste, if you have something better to do with your time; and your money has gone to a good cause) as a social one: the musicians want people in the seats, of course; but beyond that there’s the need to remind oneself — one’s physical listening apparatus — that the music one loves could not have become known, when it was written, if audiences never showed up for it. It’s the opposite of what they say about the movies (bosh, in my view); it inverts the alleged importance of thrilling to a spectacle in a dark room full of people one can’t see. At a concert, audience response (coughs or the utter absence of coughs, for example) is a register to which musicians are attuned, and a feedback to the audience itself. So I took my seat in Row T and played my part as a member of the crowd welcoming Orpheus to its 40th anniversary season (not its fortieth in Carnegie Hall — I don’t know when that will take place). But if I’d known what was on the program, I’d have stayed home, and made one of the biggest mistakes of my concertgoing life.
Beethoven’s Fifth, that’s what was on the program.
It’s a work that I never, ever listen to. It appears on no playlist. There is a recording, by Carlos Kleiber, much-admired, that I pull out once every ten years. I ought to be very unfamiliar with the Fifth. But I seemed to know every note of it last night. At the same time, and by the miracle that is the Orpheus way with music, I had never heard it before. The Fifth that I had heard before was portentous and saccharine by turns, with gruff bits of fugato and a clanging, “heroic” finale. Fate knocking at the door and all that. The Fifth was a symphony that came in a brass box, lined with dead velvet, reeking of another era’s idea of human greatness. It was a cliché and a bore. Beethoven being “Beethoven.” The Fifth was an unbeautiful leftover.
Last night, however, this is what it was: a piece of music that, at the group’s inception, no member of Orpheus would have considered playing. Forty years on, its performance was still somewhat controversial among the players. But because of the way that Orpheus has developed for learning complex scores and playing them without a conductor, last night’s Fifth came off as a manuscript recently discovered in an attic. The musicians had looked at it every which way, practiced it alone, in groups, in sections, and altogether, and, when they were ready, they decided to play it for the public. What they played sounded like a missing link between Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Schubert’s Unfinished, while at the same time making the point that Beethoven, unlike Mozart and Schubert, was not Viennese. Every note, every passage was fascinating. The symphony glistened and gleamed and sounded like music, not some big idea. There were no ideas, except possibly the professional one of outdoing Jupiter‘s last movement.
At the climax, the model and inspiration for a century’s soaring finales (culminating in Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder and Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand), instead of daydreaming about heroism and being the best that you can be &c, I choked up at the thought of the once-scrappy little chamber ensemble, playing gigs on the Staten Island Ferry and suchlike, triumphing in the temple of Carnegie, nailing chord after hammering chord in perfect accord, but sounding nothing like the bored orchestras that made music sound like canned fustian when I was growing up. This was no sell-out of the early-music, eclectic-repertoire ethos that prevailed among the generation of musicians from which Orpheus emerged. This was the apotheosis of that ethos: to make something new not by making it different but by making it as best it can be made, from the inside out.
The event was simulcast on WQXR. I don’t know how much of the grandeur of the performance came through to radio (and Intenet) listeners, but I don’t much care, because you really did have to be there to feel what was happening. You had to be sitting in the hall, coughing or not coughing. (Nobody was coughing.)
There were two other works on the program, the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri — an astute warm-up for the Beethoven — and a song cycle for mezzosoprano and baritone, Earth Echoes, by Augusta Read Thomas, a fortyish composer currently working in Chicago. The singers were Sasha Cooke, who had a warm voice, big but firmly in control, and Nathan Gunn, who sounded suave but underpowered. The writing for voice was agreeably lyrical, in contrast to the score for the orchestra, which managed to be both grandiose and meandering, like a monument stumbling about in search of a plinth. (But not as delightful as the Hockney image that my metaphor might suggest.) The texts were drawn from an A-list of world poets (Rumi, Dickinson, Basho, Wordworth, and so on — even Mahler’s adaptation of Wang Wei, from the end of Das Lied von der Erde), and the words were as unintelligible as English always is when it is sung at full voice. (There’s a reason why pop style is an Anglophone invention. It’s the only way our vowels can be understood.) I used to find works like Earth Echoes an utter trial, but years of listening to new works played by Orpheus has made me a connoisseur of virtuoso ensemble playing. At a concert a few years ago, a composer revealed in the program notes that he had set out to write something so difficult that the Orpheus musicians wouldn’t be able to play it, but he soon conceded that he was the one faced with an impossibility. Last night, I watched Laura Frautschi (on whom I am certainly not the only one to have a big crush) beat out the tortuous time with her upper body, whether she was playing her violin or not. I would not dream of passing judgment on Earth Echoes; I’ll leave that to time and future performances. I will only say that Orpheus did not fail to make it very interesting.