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Exploring greatness with Boulez, Stravinsky and Saint-Saëns in Cleveland – Seen and Heard Worldwide

United States Varied: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Todd Wilson (organ), Cleveland Orchestra / Thierry Fischer (conductor). Mandel Live performance Corridor at Severance Music Heart, Cleveland, 7.10.2022. (MSJ)

Thierry Fischer

Stravinsky – Violin Concerto in D main
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.78, ‘Organ’

What’s greatness? It’s a nagging query within the arts as opinions and reputations rise and fall. And it may be fascinating when an intriguing program places collectively composers not usually related to each other, as Thierry Fischer did on this Cleveland Orchestra live performance. On the very least, the late Pierre Boulez and the long-gone Charles Camille Saint-Saëns can be mortified to seek out themselves sharing a program. Stravinsky would doubtless have had a wry smile at their expense.

Pierre Boulez began with the noble aspiration to root out lazy and decadent elements of mid-twentieth-century European music, which he perceived as being hopelessly twisted up with the social ailments of fascism and Naziism. Sadly, the usurper grew to become a doctrinaire dictator, ridiculing any composers who didn’t toe the twelve-tone line as developed from Webern and, in the end, Schoenberg. In the long run, Boulez’s fondness for absolutes of pure music divorced from imagery, story or affiliation painted him right into a inventive nook. His early Notations for piano have been compact abstractions. Returning to them all through his profession, he started increasing among the items into orchestral variations that ranged fairly a bit farther from the unique acknowledged esthetic.

Boulez was an awesome agitator with occasional calculated moments of outrageousness, comparable to when he proposed burning down the world’s opera homes, or blasted Schoenberg within the notorious obituary, ‘Schoenberg Is Useless’. He was a energetic polemicist, a conductor with x-ray ears and – as I recall from quite a few pre-concert talks in Cleveland over his years as principal visitor conductor – an completely charming raconteur.

However was Boulez the nice composer he introduced himself to be? Even in spite of everything his years of devoted work in his IRCAM studio in Paris, I feel the inescapable reply isn’t any, not likely. Was he a positive and vital composer whose music ought to nonetheless be heard? Sure. But for all his grandstanding about main music into the long run, Boulez’s personal music is each extremely spinoff and really a lot of its time, which signifies that it sounds at the moment like a relic of the mid-twentieth century. That isn’t essentially a foul factor, however it’s time to put Boulez within the context of music historical past with out interference from the outspoken man himself.

If the piano Notations are a particular voice, it’s nonetheless one deriving from Webern by way of Olivier Messiaen, one in every of Boulez’s lecturers. Apparently, the orchestral Notations develop, generally exponentially, from the originals, however within the course of conjure up much more recollections of Messiaen and, moreover, Stravinsky. They make for absorbing listening, particularly when performed by an ensemble just like the Cleveland Orchestra that may deliver the difficult writing to life. Whereas lesser serialists all too usually devolved into noisy abstraction, Boulez efficiently pulls off the balancing act of conjuring up an interesting imaginative and prescient whereas avoiding any implicit story or program. Was he capable of adhere to the strictest guidelines of serialism in doing so? By no means, however who cares when the ultimate result’s actual music?

And it was on this efficiency. Fischer led with full assurance, speaking his intentions with easy, clear gestures that I feel would have happy Boulez. He balanced textures in order that the composer’s advanced strains shone out, whereas honoring the magnificence of its inspiration. I wouldn’t have minded for the second motion (‘Hiératique: Lent’, initially motion VII of the piano work) to be even slower, although Fischer’s considering would possibly nicely be that if taken too slowly, it will sound much more redolent of Messiaen than it already does. The third motion referred to as to thoughts Stravinsky in its rhythmicality, and the fifth and remaining motion exploded in a burst of orchestral colour that drew a heat response from the viewers and introduced Fischer again to the stage for a second bow.

Transferring from the Boulez into Stravinsky was straightforward sufficient, although for a lot of his profession the Russian composer resisted taking over serialism. In the long run, he did, however the Violin Concerto dates from the Nineteen Thirties, nicely earlier than Stravinsky’s ‘conversion’. Not like Walton’s concerto from the identical interval (which we heard final season), Stravinsky rejects any quasi-Hollywood glamour and as an alternative writes with a sardonic humor nearer to Kurt Weill and even early Shostakovich. Only a few bars into the concerto, I all of a sudden grew to become conscious of what was lacking from the Boulez rating due to his insistence on idealistic purity: a humorousness.

Humor wants context, and Stravinsky was a grasp of taking part in his music in opposition to the context he established. Within the case of this rating, the preliminary context is near the excessive spirits of the gang scenes in Petrushka, or the playful Scherzo à la Russe. This enables the soloist to alternately play together with the excessive spirits or, at instances, to chop in opposition to the overall ambiance. Doubtless, it will have been pleasant listening to this music performed by the deliberate soloist Vilde Frang, however she was pressured to cancel as a consequence of journey difficulties.

Leila Josefowicz

Fortunately for us, we obtained a substitute soloist of the best caliber in Leila Josefowicz, who all however set the stage on fireplace in her most up-to-date look in Cleveland in John Adams’ Scheherazade 2.0. Even when she have been solely a mean performer, I might have the best respect for her avowed refusal to tour round taking part in the identical three or 4 concertos time and again. Moderately, she has devoted herself to taking part in less-familiar works, together with a number of music by residing composers. Josefowicz clearly knew the Stravinsky nicely and tore into it with the identical zeal she used for the Adams work. She additionally occurs to have the method that permits her dares and gambles to work, bringing life to a piece that doesn’t all the time pop in efficiency. From the wry humor of the primary motion to the lyricism of the second to the darker track of the third and, lastly, to the fireworks of the closing, Josefowicz was electrifying, and Fischer and the orchestra matched her step for step.

From both of the 2 composers within the first half of the live performance to Saint-Saëns appears a leap, but it surely once more conjures the query about greatness. When one critic boasted that Saint-Saëns was ‘a French Beethoven’ after the premiere of his Third Symphony, the composer demurred, rejecting the hyperbole. But one has to marvel, what else was he aiming for on this piece’s grand gestures?

Thierry Fischer definitely took the customary route by means of the piece, with broad, majestic speeds and brilliant colours, and with loads of room for Todd Wilson’s grand contributions on the corridor’s fantastic pipe organ. Fischer solely pushed the tempo when accelerating into the finale’s coda, bringing it to a satisfying-enough finish. That commonplace strategy appears to validate an try and be epic and critical by Saint-Saëns. And mentioning that the principle theme of the primary motion (which returns all through the work) is derived from the ‘Dies irae’ plainchant solely appears to confirm that seriousness.

However you realize what? After years of listening, I’m ready to say that I don’t purchase it, at the very least indirectly. Don’t get me flawed, I’m not saying I dislike the piece. I find it irresistible. However I like what it truly is, not what it’s so usually mistaken to be. Dapper and witty Saint-Saëns wrote an enormous piece right here, however is it actually the epic it pretends to be? I don’t suppose so. I feel that maybe what it truly is, is a satire of the grand, epic symphonies of the excessive Romantic period. Fischer, like virtually each different conductor who has tried the piece, makes an attempt to tempo the primary motion slowly sufficient to make the jittery repeated notes exact, which is inconceivable, even for a fine-precision orchestra like Cleveland. Moderately, I feel Saint-Saëns was poking enjoyable on the scrubbing passages in Schubert, Schumann and different composers. Taking part in it faster and letting the notes fall the place they could can be nearer to the spirit of Saint-Saëns.

The ‘Dies irae’ is a purple herring, a high-portent sign that by no means performs out. Likewise, the quasi-religious stance of the opening of the sluggish motion solely reveals its true, sensual nature close to the tip of the motion. The hijinks of the scherzo must go a daredevil velocity, and the finale ought to begin excessive and proceed upward from there. As an alternative of being a real dark-to-light journey, it’s a parody of 1 that possibly, simply possibly, secretly, virtually longs to be the true factor.

Historic context proves the humor which, surprisingly sufficient, hyperlinks the Saint-Saëns to its Stravinsky program-mate. Saint-Saëns’ personal reactionary habits as a conservative combating in opposition to the brand new instructions that music needed to take paradoxically connects him to his different program mate, Boulez. In the long run, Boulez was a positive although restricted composer. Saint-Saëns was higher. And Stravinsky was the very best of the three, conscious of his personal context and limitations and turning them into virtues. These positive performances have been a splendid alternative to seek out new connections and understandings.

Mark Sebastian Jordan



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