Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Nine Numbers Game

Is there really a jinx on composers who attempt to write a tenth symphony?  Of course not -- you just have to look at Mozart (41) and Haydn (104) to prove that!  

But Gustav Mahler certainly believed that there was a jinx -- and his own slowly failing health probably helped to reinforce that belief.  Of course, he knew the precedent of Beethoven -- and, more recently, of Bruckner who left his Ninth unfinished at his death.  Mahler even went so far as to call his ninth major symphonic work a "song-symphony" (which it was -- Das Lied von der Erde) and to leave it unnumbered.

So, strictly speaking, Mahler's Ninth is actually his tenth, and this work which he mainly wrote in 1910 and was struggling to complete when he died in 1911 would really have been his eleventh.  After Mahler died, his widow, Alma, approached several different composers to complete the work, but none would take on the task.  But the sketches and drafts were published in facsimile.

Fast forward to the 1950s when British musicologist Deryck Cooke took up the project.  His version was first performed (incomplete) on the BBC in 1960, and he continued to revise and improve it through two subsequent publications.  At first, Alma Mahler was unwilling to allow performances but after hearing the recording of that first radio performance, she changed her mind and gave her blessing to Cooke's completion.  That decision may have caused her some angst, because the drafts and sketches of the symphony contain many margin notes relating to Mahler's discovery that she was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius.

In justifying his work, Deryck Cooke famously stated that the manuscripts and orchestral drafts together constituted not a "might-have-been" but an "almost-is."  Unlike some of the "completions" of various other works attempted by musicologists in the years since, Cooke worked from an orchestral draft score on 4 staves with indications of instrumentation written in -- which covered about 4/5 of the symphony -- and from sketches.  He stated that his objective was to allow the musical world to hear the work in the state in which Mahler left it -- keeping clearly in mind that Mahler would undoubtedly have done much revising and rescoring if he had lived longer.

Many great Mahler conductors have chosen not to perform the Tenth, holding that it is not a genuine Mahler work.  Fair enough -- if you're really particular.  Personally, I feel that what Deryck Cooke has achieved is a remarkably authentic and believably Mahlerian completion of the symphony.  It was the latest version of Cooke's edition which we heard in this concert.

Under guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, the Toronto Symphony gave a hair-raising performance of this extraordinary composition.  The intense tone of the performance was set right at the beginning with a very quiet, slow, but not tentative, traversal of the long, wandering viola theme.

Dausgaard certainly grasped the unique feature of this first movement, that blocks of music in three different tempi are juxtaposed with no transitions between them.  This almost Bruckner-like procedure is rare in other Mahler works, but it's of the essence here.  If some of the pauses between sections were perhaps a tad lengthy, no harm was done as the audience stayed right with the artists.  Dausgaard also relished the clashes between melodies in one key and accompanying chords in one or more other keys.  The entire movement built purposefully to the shattering climax, a nine-note discord capped by a loud scream of anguish on the trumpet -- a scream which is held through the otherwise silent beat between repetitions of that massive discord.  The slow conclusion died convincingly away.

The acid test of any conductor who tackles this score is the second movement, the first of two scherzos.  There's almost nothing like it in all of music.  This fiendish scherzo has a strong rhythmic drive but the basic rhythm and time signature are frequently altered, sometimes as often as every bar!  Dausgaard hit the ground running here, and then achieved a good contrast with the lolloping ländler of the trio section, the one part that does stick to a single clear tempo.  The closing pages accelerated to such a degree that some of the players had trouble keeping up.

Why did Mahler call the short third movement "Purgatorio"?  It's barely four minutes long, the shortest symphonic movement he ever composed, and most of it is notably quiet.  But this is where the marginal inscriptions begin to appear in the drafts and sketches, and it's pretty clear what the purgatory was that the composer was enduring.  Musically, it's critical to get this little movement right because it's a frequent point of reference in the remaining two movements and its themes reappear several times.  Dausgaard took the main theme at a suitably restless but not over-fast tempo.  The two cries of anguish later in the piece were kept under control, as this is not and must not be the crisis point of the entire symphony.

The second scherzo stays much closer to a fixed 3/4 tempo, in the manner of the Austrian ländler which Mahler so loved to use, but the free use of dissonant chords savagely undercuts that tradition.  One of the margin notes here carries a revealing comment: "The devil dances it with me!"  Dausgaard and the orchestra certainly brought out that demonic quality in the music.  Again, there are two anguished climaxes -- passages which the orchestra hammered home with utmost force -- and here the margin notes read "To live for you!  To die for you!"  The movement eventually dies away, and here both players and conductor created the convincing impression of the music fading into the air like a disappearing ghost or a vanishing nightmare (this second scherzo is nothing if not nightmarish).

Dausgaard wisely decided to move straight ahead into the long finale, in which case he could suitably have deleted one of the great drum strokes.  Minor detail -- the long slow introduction, the last and slowest of Mahler's funeral marches, pushed remorselessly forward to the moment when the orchestra launches into a faster tempo.  Although this rapid central section began firmly enough, things began to come a bit unstuck during the closing pages as Dausgaard kept pushing harder -- which he didn't really need to do.  The music's quite powerful enough without that.

No criticism of the even bigger repeat eruption of the first movement's nine-note discord, nor of the trumpet's even longer sustained note -- and the powerful horn statement of the opening viola solo was impressive indeed.

In the long final slow section, Dausgaard and the orchestra found the right middle course of a wise acceptance of fate without the heavenly blessedness of the second, third, and eighth symphonies.

Just as the music seems to be dying away, the strings rear up one last time in a massive unison leap upwards followed by a descending melody which softens as it falls.  This is the spot on the draft where Mahler wrote in the margin, "Almschi!" (his diminutive name for Alma).  For a moment my eyes grew moist.

At one time, conductors and orchestras felt that a Mahler symphony was quite enough for an audience to digest in a single concert!  Times have changed, and we got two shorter works before the main event.

All through this season, the Toronto Symphony has been presenting a long series of works commissioned from Canadian composers in celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary.  Believe it or not, this was the first time I heard one of them!  At every other concert I've attended the new commission had been performed on the night when I wasn't there!

Hopewell Cape by Christine Donkin proved to be a short but energetic tone poem, melding a lively rhythmic profile with an intriguing use of unrelated common chords somewhat reminiscent of Nielsen.

After this work, principal cellist Joseph Johnson took the stage in the Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 by Robert Schumann.  This is one of the most unusual concerto works for any instrument in the repertoire, since it largely eschews virtuoso display in favour of a more lyrical approach.  As well, it's one of Schumann's last and most successful attempts at building a multi-movement work into a single uninterrupted and coherent unit.  Another unusual feature, in the first movement, is the way that cello and orchestra each have their own melodic material, but with almost no overlap or crossover.

Using a moderate-sized orchestra, Dausgaard led a reading in a suitably small and lightweight scale, thus allowing the soloist to play with restraint as well.  This concerto would be a disaster if you tried to play it like Brahms or (worse yet) Liszt!  I felt, though, that Johnson's performance, although technically strong, lacked any sense of energy or life.  Somehow, it ended up feeling like a competent read-through at a rehearsal but not much more than that.

A final note: for this concert, the conductor chose to seat the orchestra's strings in a most unusual pattern.  The first and second violins were placed respectively to the left and right of the conductor (a common European practice, especially in Mahler's day) but the basses and cellos were also moved to sit right by the first violins, with the violas next to the second violins.  Since I always sit on the audience left in the hall, I was quite startled to find myself looking at the basses and cellos at such close quarters -- they're normally all the way on the far side of the stage.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Taking It To Extremes

Although it wasn't marketed quite that way, my title could serve as the motto for the winter mixed programme from the National Ballet of Canada.

This mixed programme could hardly have been a greater contrast from the previous production of Pinocchio (read about it here: Nobody Nose What to Expect) if the management had deliberately set out to make it so.

This programme consisted entirely of works choreographed within my lifetime, but within that limitation we saw two decidedly modern pieces, one in a very classical style, and one that straddled the divide between the two.

Of the four works presented, two were pas de deux while the other two involved larger forces.  The styles shifted too, from darkly dramatic in the first ballet to lightly, brightly, wildly silly in the last.

And all that comes before even considering the extremes plumbed by the choreographers within each of the works that were presented!

The company's advance promotion focused most of all on the North American premiere of Genus, a ballet created originally in 2007 for the Paris Opera Ballet by Wayne McGregor.  The National Ballet has twice mounted McGregor's dynamic 2006 ballet Chroma, and obviously hoped for a repetition of the success of that earlier work.

Alas for good intentions, Genus managed to throw away much of what made Chroma so memorably powerful.  Instead of a hard-driving rock score, we got an electronic soundscape in which the musical parts consisted of small fragments endlessly repeated -- minimalism taken to the nth degree.  The brilliantly lit white set of Chroma gave way to a box of black curtains and dark mirrors, with much more limited lighting.  The dancers likewise were costumed in predominantly black leotards.  Instead of the relative concision of Chroma, this work sprawled over 45 minutes.

Much of this work thus comes across like a watered-down version of Chroma.  The extraordinary postures, extensions, and peculiar body motions are still there, but lacking the dynamism of the earlier work.  After a while, and particularly because of the lack of variety in the score, I got a feeling of "All, right, I've seen all this many times -- try showing me something different."  At the heart of the work lies a quieter, softer-grained pas de deux danced inside a box-like frame which is tilted at about a 10-degree angle off the plane of the stage floor.  Given the extremely intellectual tone of the interview with McGregor published in the programme, you can easily drive yourself to distraction trying to figure out what on earth might be the significance of that tilted box within the set.  But that pas de deux was the main feature that prevented Genus from lying down and dying altogether.

None of this, by the way, is to be taken as criticism of the dancers.  This company definitely is more than well stocked with the kind of physical ability and flexibility to take on such a piece.  Given my druthers, though, I'd definitely opt to see Chroma a third time rather than watch another staging of Genus.

The three works after the intermission neatly balanced the weight and length of Genus.  First up was a Balanchine ballet, Tarantella, using the Grand Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra by nineteenth-century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.  As the title clearly indicates, the music is a high-speed, dynamic moto perpetuo.  Balanchine`s choreography of this pas de deux captures not only the energy of the score but also the jovial, almost carnival-like character of the music.  As in most classical pas de deux, the work begins with the two dancers together, then goes through a series of "variations" for the two dancers alternately, and finally winds up with a concluding dance for both.

At first glance, the dancers don't appear to be throwing themselves around the stage with the kind of reckless abandon that the music suggests.  But as soon as you focus on just the footwork, you can quickly grasp how challenging this piece is to perform.  The dancers appear to be moving very easily across the stage but take a look at the complex crosses and turns which their feet are executing as they go.  It's all worlds removed from a typical Petipa pas de deux where the hurtling bodies draw gasps from the audience, but it's probably much harder to do well.

Rui Huang and Dylan Tedaldi gave Tarantella a breezy, enjoyable performance that made light of the technical complexities.  Especially notable was the sense that both dancers were having fun with this virtuoso showpiece.  Given the jolly character of the music, that's an essential component for a really effective performance of this work.  I've seen it danced once before, at one of the Erik Bruhn competitions (I think) and the dancers on that occasion looked a lot more concentrated and intense.  That's fatal to the overall effect,

Next up was another pas de deux, created by Robert Binet and based on music by the duo ensemble "Winged Victory for the Sullen".  It was entitled Self and Soul and was created for the Erik Bruhn Competition in November of 2016.  I've seen a couple of Binet's pieces before but this one struck me as a quantum leap forward in his choreographic career -- much more fully realized than his earlier efforts.  Although Binet has used a definitely modern idiom, the result is deeply poetic and commands the fullest involvement from the audience.

As did the dancing of Jenna Savella and Spencer Hack.  It's the first time I can recall seeing Hack in such a featured role, but I'm sure I'll be seeing him again.  Savella is, of course, as experienced and versatile a dancer as anyone in the company.  Together they built up an interaction which drew me right into the work and held my full attention.  It was both a delight and a stimulus of thought to watch these two create such a fluent and inspired performance out of Binet's pas de deux.

The programme concluded with The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody) by Jerome Robbins.  This half-hour work, subtitled "A Charade in One Act", was originally created in 1956 -- and the age certainly shows.  (That's one of the perils of hedging one's creative work round about with copyright walls).  Most obvious sign of ageing here is the casually physical attitude towards women called for in the choreography.

The concept is that we, the audience, are looking inside the behaviour and thinking -- and fantasies -- of an audience at a concert of Chopin's music.  Robbins took a decidedly ironic, humorous approach to this concept, and the result is a series of risible, visible jokes.  The role of the dancers keeps shifting -- at one moment they are audience members at the concert, the next they are dancers performing to the music.

Some of the best moments included the group of women performing a classical corps de ballet number where one dancer kept arriving in the wrong position at the wrong moment.  What kept this choreographer's nightmare light-hearted was the way that one of the other dancers would correct the wrong-headed one each time -- not by moving her into position with care, but with a sharp slap that would make her suddenly snap into the proper posture.

Also immensely amusing was the role of the older man with a perennial cigar stuck in his mouth, danced by Piotr Stanczyk.  His strutting, preening portrayal set the audience laughing every time he moved -- and the laughs rose even higher whenever he made a fool of himself (often).

It's also important to make mention of pianist Andrei Streliaev's performance.  The Chopin pieces used are certainly familiar, but the pianist has to take repeats in places other than as indicated by the composer, perform sections of a piece out of sequence, and keep dropping in and out of passages that have been re-scored using the orchestra.  Imagine an operatic soloist having to interpolate 12 bars from Tosca into a performance of a famous aria from Il Trovatore -- an aria which itself begins with its final page before the first page has been sung -- and you'll have the idea.  Not only that, but Streliaev had to also interact with the dancers at several key points in the work.  His deadpan facial expressions definitely brought the requisite laughs at those moments.

The Concert plainly lives in the same neighbourhood, perhaps even the same street, as Kenneth Macmillan's classic Elite Syncopations.  If it isn't quite as funny or as fully realized, it's nevertheless a useful reminder that ballet has no more need than opera to be eternally serious, deep, philosophical, or meaningful.  In that respect, it made a nicely light-hearted finale to a stimulating and thought-provoking mixed programme of dance.