Last Friday night’s performance by the Nashville Symphony, featuring the Blair String Quartet and guest conductor Dr. Leslie E. Dunner, was an evening of good news and bad news. The good news: The symphony can play really good music really well. The bad news: Sometimes it doesn’t.
The program was well-conceived. Brahms’ Tragic Overture offered Romantic emotion in a classically disciplined form, and its “tragic” character foretold the finale, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Following the Brahms was Walter Piston’s Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra. As English as Brahms is German, the Elgar brought together qualities heard in Brahms and in Piston, and suitably closed the program’s first half. After intermission, the Symphony players returned for the infamous Rite, a “tragic” (in the unflinchingly affirmative Nietzschean sense) celebration of spring’s compulsive fecundity.
This was an attractive program, and it did attract. The house, about three-quarters full, seemed to enjoy itthe orchestra got the Nashville ovation. The music was mostly good, sometimes quite good; but not at the outset. The Tragic Overture, one-half of a diptych Brahms composed as a thank-you for an honorary doctor’s degree bestowed by the University of Breslau in 1879, is not great Brahms. (The other half, much better known, is the Academic Festival Overture.) Indeed, why this Brahms? Perhaps for the “tragic” connection noted above. In any case, on this evening it was bafflingly bad. It began, and continued, with very ragged stringsin attacks, intonation, and ensemble. The brass were ragged too. Dunner once pointed to his own ear, semaphoring the players to unplug theirs.
The rest of the program sounded better. Much of the credit goes to the Blair String Quartet, who stirred the house with their purposeful, smiling entrance, two men in tuxedos book-ending two women in long, flame-colored gowns. Their playing was first-rate too: confident, tight, accurate, richly resonant, and tastefully expressive.
Composed in 1976 when Piston, 80, was on his deathbed, the Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion was commissioned by the Portland (Maine) Symphony; fittingly, it epitomizes everything Piston stood for. Though not great music, it is genuinely good music. After the dark and ragged Brahms, the Piston was lighter and airier; it centered on the quartet conversing in Bartokian lines, escorted by percussion in authentic ensemble with woodwinds providing a quasi-Oriental context. The climactic moment of this piece, paradoxically quiet, was followed by a lovely, lyrical, angular viola cadenza that closed when the other members of the quartet rejoined the viola for a quietly “modern” dissonant final chord.
As if this piece had revivified them, the orchestra’s string players joined the quartet to play the Elgarand they played it well. The Introduction opened with the quartet “lining out” melodic materials in the same way that church song leaders used to sing hymns in front of a congregation: The quartet would perform a line solo, then quartet and ensemble would perform the whole thing together. This procedure led to the strong central fugue, followed by a reworking of the opening material, giving a solid A-B-A shape to the whole. The Brahms was nearly rinsed out of the audience’s ears, and they offered warm applause in response.
After intermission, Dunner returned to conduct the Stravinsky. Dunner was himself impressive, despite being hampered by recent surgery. Each time he entered, he strode onto the stage, supporting himself with a gnarled walking staff, which he laid on the podium before he picked up his baton and went to work. Some of his gestures bespoke Kurt Masur, whom he assists, though Dunner is much more graceful than the beefy older maestro. The orchestra became his responsive instrument; he played it well, and at the end, he had the principal wind players stand for well-deserved applause before having the rest of the orchestra rise to join them.
Two things struck me about the Rite of Spring: how dated and safe it isand yet how powerful it remains. If Disney hadn’t already used some of it in Fantasia, it’s easy to imagine hearing the quiet opening in The Lion King. Lyrical winds suggest a savage sunrise as Simba and Nala awaken on the veldt, while the racket to come would be perfect for a buffalo stampede. This racket, which caused riots in Paris when Pierre Monteux conducted the premiere, was indeed racket, but less so than the Rolling Stones, to say nothing of Motorhead.
Even without the section titles and without an actual ballet, the music itself would still move us to imagine forests and savannas where humans and other animals ferally stalk and couple. As performed by the Symphony, all this urgent clamor built to a sudden “Grand Pause”; then more panicky flight led to a sudden thudding shot that nailed the first movement shut. The second movement was a less urgent rehearing of these materials, leading to an abrupt closure. The two parts together made one flesh, as spring’s compulsive fecundity mated with cruel violence. The music, though not at all pretty as a whole, was vitally beautiful.
Hearing it thus through Dunner’s ears, the audience was better able to hear Stravinsky’s classical economy in building the music out of “musical objects”small, definite modules of sound. The germinal “object” is a rhythmic cell that, for all its subtle asymmetrical variations, remains a driving duple pulse. The melodic materials, like the shards of lullabies in the “pastoral” sections, are always diatonic. And the bitonal harmonic dissonances, achieved by stacking one chord on top of anothersay, an E-natural atop an E-flatare familiar. Each of the chords is “normal”; only their marriage is odd, although not very much so anymore. There is an intelligent cogency to this music, in which rhythmic accuracy counts for more than intonational accuracy, and Dunner gave a body to it through this orchestra.
The music genuinely moved the audience to see spring’s urgencies as indeed terribly wonderful, wringing out of the earth lovely life that, if it lasts long enough, becomes palsied decrepitude. If Piston on his deathbed had heard this Rite of Spring, maybe helike the dying, deaf Beethoven upon seeing the jagged flare of a soundless thunderclapwould have shaken his fist at the heavens, not in defiance but in salute. It was gratifying to hear such a finish to the evening.
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