Friday, November 5, 2010

A Video-Chat with Stuart Malina about the November Concert

The season seems like it just got started and yet here it is, November already, and 2010's almost over! Where does the time go?

It's time for the second Masterworks concert – Saturday Nov. 13th at 8pm and Sunday Nov. 14th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg – which will feature internationally renowned guitarist Sharon Isbin playing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez on a program that includes two 5th Symphonies - one by Schubert, the other by Sibelius.

There's a pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard an hour before each concert and then after each performance, conductor Stuart Malina will host a "talk-back session" with the soloist during which the audience can ask any questions they want about the music or the performers.

The other day, Stuart and I had a chance to sit down and chat about the concert.

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The Rodrigo Concerto is usually considered THE Guitar Concerto, in addition to being one of the most popular concertos (for any instrument) from the 20th Century. The music is undeniably delightful, from the scintillating opening to the joyous dance-like finale, not to forget one of the most soulfully gorgeous slow movements in between.

Yet it was written at one of the most anxiety-filled times in 20th Century history: the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (in which it is estimated 500,000 people died) were just ending, even though they would haunt the nation for decades to come, and the clouds of the 2nd World War were already gathering on the horizon, with Hitler's invasion of Poland happening only a couple of months after Rodrigo completed his sunny, pastoral concerto.

Here is "an audio" of Sharon Isbin playing the opening movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez that was posted on YouTube (there's a live performance but the sound quality is not very good): though uncredited, I'm assuming this is her Teldec recording with José Serebrier conducting the New York Philharmonic (the photo image is cover-art from a different recording).
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(This link will take you to raw video footage of a live performance recorded in the Church of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, with the opening section of the concerto's slow movement. The sound's not too bad even if the filming is a bit amateurish – it'll give you an idea of what you'll hear, though.)

Rodrigo's title, by the way, refers to a famous royal palace that had been built by Philip II, the great Spanish king during the 16th Century, on a site originally chosen by Ferdinand and Isabella. From the late 19th Century, it had served as the "spring residence" of the Spanish royal family.

Rodrigo composed the work while living in Paris in 1939, far from the fighting in Spain physically, but never far away from his mind. During this horrible time in Spain's modern history, then, it might be easy to understand why Rodrigo would want to remind people of their nation's glorious past. There would also be a not very subtle reminder of Spain's royal heritage, following the Civil War and the establishment of Franco's dictatorship.

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In that sense, the Sibelius 5th Symphony also comes from an anxious time. Finland was still part of the Russian Empire, longing for independence, and the 1st World War had already begun to tear across Europe, called by some "The Great War" (more for its sense of almost universal involvement) and by others "The War to End All Wars" (which, alas, proved not to be true).

Again, like the Rodrigo, this is nothing you'd guess from hearing the music.

As I mention in the video-chat, Sibelius (seen right, in 1918) wrote this for his own 50th Birthday celebrations originally in 1915 but he revised it a couple of times over the next three years. So basically it occupied him for the duration of the war.

While the war may not have made any imprint on this symphony, there is one thing we know about that did inspire something in it: the great sweeping bell-like theme in the horns near the beginning of the last movement (about 1:25 into the video clip below). Sibelius described how one afternoon, his work was disturbed by the sound of swans nearby. When he went outside to see what was happening, he saw sixteen great swans take off and fly across the sky past him. This was such a striking moment and it ended up being turned into a striking musical moment as well.

Here is the Swedish Radio Symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the final movement of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5:
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(Listen especially to the build-up of tension beginning around 8:00, as this "swan-call" motive is stretched all over the place before resolving into one of the most dramatic silences in symphonic music at 9:39.)

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Schubert's 5th Symphony would hardly seem tied to any such historical significance, yet it was written during the heady times following a generation of Napoleonic warfare. (Perhaps he still remembered being a student in 1809 when a French bomb narrowly missed the school where he was attending classes.) Between 1814-1815, Europe's crowned heads and diplomats gathered in Vienna to redivide the continent following Napoleon's defeat. The following summer, a 19-year-old Franz Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 5.

Usually, when we think of "Fifth Symphonies," we think of Beethoven's Fifth with its famous "Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door" motive and its depiction of triumph over adversity. Beethoven completed his 5th around 1806 and it was premiered two years later, when Schubert was 11.

So what did Schubert (left) think of his famous contemporary?

Keep in mind, around that time, he was studying with Antonio Salieri who had been one of the most important composers in Vienna during the earlier part of his career (the rivalry with Mozart aside: good theater, not the most accurate history – but yes, they were on opposite sides of the musical fence).

On June 16th, 1816, Schubert attended a celebration for his former teacher, honoring the 50th Anniversary of Salieri's arrival in Vienna. That night, Schubert made one of his rare journal entries, thinking how "fine and enlivening it must be" for an artist of Salieri's stature to be surrounded by so many of his students and hear music they had composed in his honor:

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" hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays, and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists [i.e., Beethoven]; that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and that which is most holy with harlequinades, without distinction, so as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite them to laughter instead of lifting them up to God."
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That was Schubert at 19 on Beethoven – who had recently completed his 7th and 8th Symphonies.

That statement was written in mid-June. Schubert began his 5th Symphony sometime during September of that year and completed it on October 3rd. (Incidentally, though it was played once by one of those amateur "reading-orchestras" Schubert played in, it was not heard publicly until 57 years later, 45 years after the composer died.)

Now, Schubert's attitude toward Beethoven certainly changed later – and not much later. The imprint of Beethoven's influence is all over Schubert's search for the grand symphonic form we hear in his Unfinished and Great C Major Symphonies, in the final string quartets, the String Quintet and the last several piano sonatas. But at the age of 19, not so much.

Here's the first movement of Schubert's "anti-Beethoven" Symphony No. 5 with Gunther Wand (who was around 80 when he recorded this) conducting a North German music festival orchestra:
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As Stuart mentioned in our conversation, this music may have been created in trying times but the composers managed to transcend them. We're certainly living in trying times ourselves when many people are concerned about national and international politics, our economic or physical well-being and certainly the state of the arts, not just in our country. Whether this music gives you the opportunity to put aside these concerns for a moment and 'escape' from reality or whether it refreshes your soul and inspires you to realize that we have managed to survive in the past, it still gives us an opportunity to see beauty in things around us when sometimes we wonder if it will ever exist again.

- Dick Strawser