Monday, September 13, 2010

constructions and games

Saturday, September 11 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Simon Rattle, conducting
Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano
Burkhard Ulrich, tenor
Ildegrando D'Arcangelo, bass
Rundfunk Chor Berlin

Luciano Berio, Coro
Stravinsky, Pulcinella

I cannot promise it will be an easy thing for me to review the Berlin Philharmonic. No orchestra is flawless, but for me the Berlin Phil composes the perfect storm of orchestra: brilliant musicianship, a strong and dedicated music director, intelligent and progressive programming, an amazing concert hall, great online presence, and outreach which seems to work. So if I tend to gush when writing about their concerts, that's probably because I was gushing when listening to them.

This year's musikfest, to which Saturday's performance belonged, explores the triangle of Berio-Stravinsky-Boulez. A thoughtful and well-researched program brochure with essays by Paul Griffiths and others elucidates Berio's and Boulez's different stances on their groundbreaking predecessor. Theoretically, these positions will be made clear by the music. I have now heard Berio and Stravinsky in this program as well as the Rundfunk-Sinfonie's concert of Berio's Voci, Stravinsky's Agon, and a completely forgettable Strauss suite. After this week of concerts, which will encompass all three composers, I should have a better assessment of the festival's programming successes.


The more music I hear by Berio, the more confused I get about his general reception and role in the canon. Most music history courses teach Berio as the author of the third movement of the Sinfonia and the creator of the Sequenzas--post-modern, intellectual, cerebral. But in reality, his music is more unabashedly neo-Romantic than any of his European contemporaries besides Henze. With the exception of the Sequenzas, nearly every work brims over with tonal or quasi-tonal splendor, Ravel-esque colors, and incredible lushness. This is a composer who should be as equally celebrated and embraced by conservative audiences as sappy, actual neo-Romantics like Tan Dun and Richard Danielpour.

Descriptions of works like the Sinfonia, Coro, and Folk Songs do not do justice to the pieces themselves. We get the idea of Berio as a deconstructionist, breaking down the notions of symphony and choral work, nitpicking at forms of grandeur and creating postmodern commentary. But if anything, Berio is a constructionist: he builds rich, detailed canvasses of sound. Coro deconstructs the notion of a choral/orchestral piece while at the same time building a massive paean to poetic love. It's beautiful in a very conventional way; ignore the composer's name and program notes, and you might mistake it at times for John Adams.

In Simon Rattle's and the Berlin Philharmonic's hands, Coro was something truly extraordinary. Berio assembles his chorus out of solo voices, mixed together with the smallish orchestra on-stage. It begins with a solo soprano singing a Sioux poem, "Today is mine," accompanied by an ambiguous, quasi-Expressionist piano line. Gradually, other orchestral and vocal parts enter, creating a wave of sound and intoning the first line of the Pablo Neruda poem which forms the basis of the work. A section from the long poem "Residencia en la Tierra" acts as a kind of motto statement throughout the piece; it returns in different forms between almost every text (which range from Peruvian dance tunes to The Song of Songs).

Each reprise is set to the same gorgeous, pulsating chord. Early on, it is a violent shriek of timbre, but it acquires a different significance in each repetition: sometimes it glows with light; sometimes it feels carved in stone. It's a testament to Berio's miraculous gifts of orchestration, which produce a composite chorus/orchestra texture in which individual voices cannot be separated from an organic whole, as well as the Philharmonic's remarkable balance.

With 31 short, continuous sections and nearly as many different poems, it might seem that Berio was attempting something pluralistic or fragmented, but it is the opposite. Coro feels almost overly unified, progressing from dark art-song to exotic primitiveness without skipping a beat. The orchestra sounded resplendent and the singers of the Rundfunkchor Berlin were fantastic both as soloists and as ensemble despite Berio's excessive vocal demands. Rattle paid careful attention to not only timbral blend but also the over-arching drama of the work, forming a sustained narrative over its fifty minutes.


Reading anything Stravinsky says is like gazing into a hall of mirrors. Why did the 1920s cosmopolitan public think poorly of Beethoven? Because Stravinsky said so. Why did Stravinsky say so? Because he thought that was what the 1920s cosmopolitan public wanted to hear. It's an endless maze of puzzles and masks, lies about lies, further complicated by confidante Robert Craft's dabbling . Stravinsky fed the Zeitgeist and the Zeitgeist fed Stravinsky. No other composer has tried so hard to fit in while simultaneously defining the culture into which he tried to fit.

And then, the music says something entirely different. Stravinsky hid behind a veneer of neo-classicism, proclaiming "Music expresses nothing but itself" while couching that very music in some of most outwardly expressive of forms. Pulcinella embodies that aesthetic: at times, it is almost painstakingly sensitive, wonderfully evocative, direct and immediate in its musical affect and rhetoric. But by declaring it a kind of game, a musical "object," Stravinsky set the tone for how the piece would be perceived--and more importantly (and more unfortunately), how the entire musical epoch from which the piece originated would be perceived. There is nothing emotionally stagnant about Pergolesi or his contemporaries. No period of musical history is inherently more "expressive" than another.

Today, most performers of Stravinsky see through his comments and take the music on its own terms. Rattle crafted a genial, loving interpretation of Pulcinella. From the opening gesture of the bouncy overture, the Philharmonic played with heft and character entirely appropriate to Stravinsky's Commedia dell'arte. Each of the three soloists--tenor Burkhard Ulrich, mezzo Stella Doufexis, and bass Ilderando D'Arcangelo--played his part, singing the Italian texts with crisp diction and careful attention to their rhythmic games. The individual members of the Philharmonic were sensational, with great violin solos from concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto and inhuman flute and trumpet virtuosity from Emmanuel Pahud and Gábor Tarkövi.

The final vocal number, an understated, majestic minuet, gleamed with the sterling sound of the orchestra. Each of the soloists sang with hushed intensity. Then, as if to shrug off the emotions of music, Stravinsky ends with a brisk, brusque finale. It's too late; objectivity has already been stolen away but the relentlessly expressive music.


  1. I enjoyed your perspective on Igor's reflective and refractive nature. Made me think of the pop icons of today; I wonder if Lady Gaga thinks she's expressing anything or just giving the people what they (she) want(s).
    Sure, expression emerges from every period--even, if imperceptibly--but I'd say each period prioritizes musical (and extra-musical) elements with vast degrees of difference: sound/noise, melody/harmony, form/expression.
    Have you been to a Voku yet? Highly recommended.

  2. Definitely, evan. Stravinsky made his proclamations about expression to distance himself from the overbearing shadow of Wagner and romanticism. By saying that music expresses nothing but itself, he could escape the notion of music expressing nothing but the composer's own "subjective" feelings, aka the composer-as-hero in his own music (Beethoven's legacy).

    I will definitely try to get to a Voku soon, I've heard they're pretty great.