Schoenberg Before He Sucked (And Brahms at His Best)

09/29/2009 2:03 PM |

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So far so good for Alan Gilbert. While Peter Gelb and James Levine have been getting booed over at the Met, their Philharmonic counterpart (sort of) has been quietly triumphing across the plaza in his first season as musical director. Saturday evening’s concert was a brilliant bit of programming; though the two works presented were written only 25 years apart, pieces with feet firmly planted in similar traditions, they signaled widely divergent musical directions: Brahms’ Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra (1879) looks back at the Romantic Era that was just cresting; Schoenberg’s (pictured) Pelleas und Melisande: Symphonic Poem for Orchestra (1903), looks forward to the Modernist Era that was soon to come.

Johannes Brahms was born six years after Beethoven died, but Ludwig van’s influence looms large over his successor’s work; Brahms’ First Symphony is sometimes chidingly called “Beethoven’s Tenth”. Beethoven, Jr. picks up the late composer’s mantle: like Beethoven’s, Brahms’ compositions tend towards the epically Romantic, sweeping and moody music given to quick temperamental shifts. His Violin Concerto is no exception: the soloist (at this concert, Frank Peter Zimmerman) leads the orchestra like a mercurial patriarch guiding a room full of children prone to apery: profuse, rolling passages quickly erupt into sudden violence, the violin squawking while the orchestra, without missing a beat, follows along dutifully.

In his symphonies, Brahms is all about openings and endings; his middle game is underdeveloped if not perfunctory (particularly compared to another late Romantic, Dvorak, the master of middle movements)—just as some rock bands can’t write a bridge to save their record contract. The same holds for his Violin Concerto; in fact, the piece is most notable for its finale, the Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace—Poco piu presto. (Moviegoers will recognize it as the exit music for There Will Be Blood.) The section is shockingly aggressive, as a joyous but bombastically irate central theme is repeatedly revisited, increasing in fortitude each time around. The melody is infectious: a seat neighbor hummed along; I couldn’t stop whistling it as afterward I walked to the subway. While the players tuned up before the performance, at least one violinist could be heard playing it as a boisterous warm-up. (If I could play violin, I’d want to play those few bars all the time, too.) The movement provided a calisthenic conclusion: Gilbert bounced around his podium; Zimmerman hopped from side to side. The playing was a bit rushed, but the speed had the benefit of putting the violinist’s virtuosity in the limelight. If it was a little sloppy, the sloppiness rocked; sometimes passion is a little messy. (Watch Zimmerman play the Allegro giocoso… in a random, rockin’ YouTube video)

Zimmerman followed with an encore: Paganini’s variations on “God Save the King” (the same tune as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”). It was a comic, crowd-pleasing, accidentally patriotic, fiddle-like bit of playing—and a stunning display of technical mastery. Watch him play it, a few years ago, here.

Before the Schoenberg piece, after intermission, Gilbert switched on a microphone and introduced it with a short lecture, complete with illustrative musical excerpts. Outside of Bramwell Tovey’s annual Summertime Classics series, such a movie is highly unusual at Avery Fisher—but was much appreciated. As he explained how different musical motifs represented different characters, and the arrangements of and variations in those motifs told a story, he came across like Bernstein on his old Saturday morning television show—only with less charisma. Hopefully he will continue with these educational asides and become more comfortable with them as he does so.

The music itself was blazing—robust, adventurous and glorious, a work not to be overlooked. (You can hear a clip here.) Schoenberg is best known for his 20th Century work in pioneering atonal music, but this work predates that radicalism; Pelleas und Melisande is a largely tonal work, with lush, consonant passages. But it’s counterbalanced by the brooding melodies and severe melodic counterpoints that would become familiar in later orchestral works like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which would premiere a decade later. Dissonant explosions—moments surely unfathomable, in their musical violence, to the antecedent Romantics—emerge from whispered, Debussy-esque pastorals. It’s a complex piece that blends a wide range of styles (reflective of the storytelling at play, about a love triangle that turns violent); sometimes, it even combines those styles simultaneously, as sentimental melodies are tweaked to sour, then squealed in discordant deviations.

Gilbert led the orchestra in an assured and dynamic performance; judging from his pre-performance gushing, in which he opined that some passages were among the most beautiful music ever written, he seems more at home in this type of transitional modernism than in the reactionary stylings of fusty old Brahms. Here’s hoping the future sees more such instructively parallel programming.