Meaty season opener – Peter Greer

Whatever else is to be said about this weekend’s PSO program, one
should be grateful to Frühbeck de Burgos and the players for offering
up such a meaty plate.   Beethoven’s Pastoral has concluded PSO
programs in past seasons.  This weekend it opens the 05-06 season’s
first official program to be followed after the interval by
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  I would be hard pressed to find two
masterpieces (separated by little more than a century) that can be
performed in one evening providing such a musical contrast.

Had the lives of these two geniuses been reversed, I wonder what
Stravinsky might have composed in 1808 and Beethoven in 1913.
Regardless of when they lived, certainly both men’s music would have
reflected and offended the artistic sensibilities of the times.  Both
composers relished breaking compositional conventions, once mastered,
and then imposing their own. 
 
I was intrigued to read in Andrew Huth’s notes, for Gergiev’s 2001
recording of the Rite, how Stravinsky was unable at first to pen
certain passages in the Rite’s final movement, Danse Sacrale,
despite being able to hear the music clearly in his head.  The rhythms
were just too complicated for even this genius to put down on paper
initially.   My hat’s off to the PSO musicians who can play the Rite so
supremely well the audience is clueless as to how difficult and risky
it is for even the best performers to pull off.
 
Context has much to do with how we apprehend a musical
experience.   If I were to hear the Rite played today for the first
time, I could grasp the piece much more easily and confidently than
when I first encountered it in music appreciation class forty years
ago.  (See Rant 1 below.)  Nowadays at least for me, during
performances of the Rite, the shock of the new gives way to "Where have
I heard this before?".
 
And I’m not talking just about the piece itself. The Rite’s
influence permeates so much of our music today that we know it’s
architecture before we have even heard it.  It’s everywhere – not only
in the big band shout choruses that Bob Moir points out on the PSO
05-06 season preview CD but in movie sound tracks and commercials.  And
don’t forget the many serious composers including Olivier Messiaen and
Elliott Carter, Steve Reich and Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès and
Derek Bermel who have borrowed and stolen from the Rite.  No less than
Joan Tower (a former PSO composer of the year) and Lenny Bernstein have
worshipped at the Rite’s sacrificial altar. 
 
Don’t get me wrong.  A performance of the Rite today played by a
world class orchestra is one of the most overwhelming artistic
experiences you can have.   Driving into work this week, I heard Jim
Cunningham play an excerpt on QED-FM of the "Rite" recorded in 1953 and
performed by the PSO.  This is a piece that has an impressive
performance history in our city.  I did not get to hear Maazel conduct
it.  But Janson’s Rite was something else!  To my ears, he imbued the
piece with a French sensuality that made one both blush and shiver at
the same time.  Upon conclusion of the Rite, Jansons had seduced the
beast lurking within into submission with the impressionistic
colorations he was able to coax out of every page of the score.   
 
But if a maestro chooses to taunt the beast, the Rite can become
unnerving, sinister, brutal, ugly, yet ultimately so cathartic to rival
even Sophocles for those with stomach enough to survive the ride.
Listen to Gergiev’s recording to see what I mean.   Funny how,
depending upon who’s doing the driving, the same notes on the page are
capable of producing such strikingly divergent, yet ultimately
satisfying artistic results.  How can that be?
 
Much as I love the Pastoral, I can imagine living in a world
without it, but I can’t say the same about the Rite.  When the Rite was
first performed in 1913, the world of music changed forever.  The world
is still recovering.
 
I hope to have more to say about this weekend’s performance later.
 

Rant 1 –  A personal bias of mine is to avoid anyone who
proffers "art appreciation" of any kind.  To "appreciate" art is to
condemn it.  Art means so much more to the human experience than
appreciation.  Talk about tokenism.  I do not "appreciate" the
Pittsburgh Symphony.  I depend upon it to give meaning to my life!!!!
Local politicians appreciate the Pittsburgh Symphony if you catch my
drift.   


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Sep 16