Sunday, January 13, 2008
Four Almost-The-Last Songs
Unlike an evening at the opera, where there is almost invariably one piece being performed with a beginning, middle and an end, symphony programs tend to consist of a potpourri of different musical pieces that can be arranged in any which way.
Sometimes there is a natural affinity among the various pieces, such as an all-Mozart program, or an all 20th century program, but most of the time the groupings are eclectic and designed to balance each other out.
A popular choice is to start a concert with a short "curtain-raiser," such as an overture, which is often followed by a concerto with a star soloist, and then after an intermission, the "large" symphonic piece is played. Sometimes these pieces of music have an obvious relation to each other and other times they have absolutely nothing in common. I've heard both types of programs work well over the years and have also heard others that were bewildering disasters, where the different kinds of music canceled each other out.
Not only did this strange combo not work together well, but the placement of Strauss' "Four Last Songs" right before the intermission was a serious mistake, because who wants to listen to anything else after that sublime music? I certainly didn't and neither did my friend David Barnard.
Oliver Knussen was a wunderkind composer who wrote his first two symphonies in his teens, then wrote this third and (so far) final symphony for Michael Tilson Thomas in the late 1970s. There were moments of great beauty but the dense, hugely textured piece never seemed to come together except in those moments where Knussen seemed to be channeling Benjamin Britten, one of his mentors. Plus, the music was a hard slog, and though I've given MTT grief for lecturing concertgoers on what they should be listening for, in this case it would have been appreciated.
Strauss' "Four Last Songs" are pure schmaltz, with that composer in his sweetest and most ethereal vein. (If you've seen "The Year of Living Dangerously," one of the songs was used as a refrain.) I had never heard the songs live before, and was hoping for Total Transcendence, since they were being sung by Deborah Voigt, whose Elisabeth in "Tannhauser" in the early 1990s and the title role in "Ariadne auf Naxos" a few years ago at the San Francisco Opera were both definitive. Done properly, the music should make you feel that you can lie down and die happily, content in looking back at your long life and its mixture of joys and sadness.
Unfortunately, the performance didn't quite get there for some reason. Maybe Davies Hall is just too big a barn for the music or MTT is the wrong conductor or Ms. Voigt is the wrong singer. In any case, the performance was fine, but definitely not "transcendental."
I left with my friend David at intermission because neither of us felt like listening to Beethoven after the "Four Last Songs," but then I felt guilty because I had attended with great press seats given to me by the Symphony itself, so I bought a rush ticket the next day with my neighbor Richard above, and returned to hear the whole concert.
After hearing the Knussen Symphony No. 3 again, I can honestly state that I never need to hear it again, but Voigt was much better at Thursday's second performance. We even stayed to hear her tear into Barber's concert aria, which was a great performance even though the music is fairly uninteresting. You can hear why his "Antony and Cleopatra" from the same period must have been such a dull disaster.
Once again, however, the music all evening proved to be too strong and rich a stew, and though the performance of Beethoven's Fourth was probably masterful, meaningful and altogether fabulous, there was no way we were going to stick around and listen to it. Music from these concerts is going to be performed in March on a tour to Carnegie Hall, and I have a simple suggestion. "Four Last Songs" should ALWAYS be last. Your audience will thank you.