“On & Off a Soap Box”: Honegger & Theofanidis vs. Ravel & Gershwin – Naomi Yoran

Am I again "standing on my soap box" lamenting (not crying out) on those contemporary composers who need to write & explain their music? Yes, I do…

Two concerts ago, (April 13 & 15) Esa-Pekka Salonin baffled me with his own tedious analysis of his composition ‘Foreign Bodies’,
which for my ears did not evoke any association, musical or otherwise,
with his written story line. So the introduction did not help. Just
last December, Sofia Gubaidulina had not done justice to her excelent ‘Feast During a Plague’ with her unnecessary, cumbersome & preachy written introduction.

Last week’s concert we were treated to what I perceive the same "bad habit". Christopher Theofanidis, the PSO‘s Composer in Residence for this season, not only wrote an essay about the origins and musical meaning of his Symphonic Poem ‘The Here and Now’, but went on stage prior to the concert, summarized his written assay and added a few remarks.

It is not that I am bothered by knowing what the composer’s point of
departure was, but let it be the only information given. Otherwise, and
especially when listening to a new piece, I am deprived of my own
imaginative needs while listening.

Arthur Honegger’s short piece:‘Mouvement Symphonique No.1:Pacific231’,performed
at the start of the concert, "played it both ways": his point of
departure was abstract according to the program notes. Still, there was
a "story" attached. (Probably "under pressure" of the "contemporary
disposition" of French artists & public alike, he succumbed to a
very specific image), forcing all of us, past & future audiences to
"hear the acceleration, movements & stop of a locomotive", where
there were (at least to me) none, except at the first few phrases which
evoked just the rhythm of a passing train…

Returning to ‘The Here and Now’: This Symphonic Poem was composed to accompany a selection of translated verses of the Persian mystic poet, Rumi, from the 13th century. I remember well Reza Vali’s ‘The Being of Love’ which was performed by the PSO exactly a year ago. It was inspired by Rumi.
All but the last poem was written by the composer (in Persian &
translated to English) while the conclusion was an original Rumi. I was so taken by the poetry, music, performance of the PSO and soloist DeYoung (singing the Persian original,) and the conductor Manfred Honeck, that I returned the next evening for a second hearing!

I have no intentions to suggest that there is only one "proper way" to be inspired by a great poet. This would be foolish. Rumi, as Shakespear and Pushkin
and so many other great poets inspired and will continue to inspire
great art for generations to come. Each new interpretation was, is and
will be unique. Some are better than others. I believe that great
musical interprepation of poetry offers a symbiosis of lyrics and
sounds. Vali’s ‘The Being of Love’ was an artistic triumph at my first hearing. Theofanidis’ ‘The Here and Now’, left me untouched. The introduction did not help. Was it that I couldn’t follow the lyrics sung by the Mendelssohn Choir (although it was in English…)? Was it the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier
who might have been weak in keeping the orchestra & the choir in
harmony? Was it the music itself which did not evoke in me feelings of
longing, desire, sorrow, acceptance and the ultimate: the power of
love? It was a complex and demanding piece. I hope that future hearings
will change "my verdict". I also hope that by than I will forget the
introduction.

The concert concluded with George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’.
True, I listen to it so many times over the years and never got tired
of it, but in the context of this concert, as compared to the first
half of the program, Gershwin never offered "a story line". Each of us can imagine a different experience of Gershwin
in Paris, any of us visiting Paris (past present or future) or any
individual from any other part of the world will have his own image of
an American in Paris! Here, the music fits the title but no
introduction or explaining required.

The second half of the program saved my evening. Prior to Gershwin, we were offered the ‘Concerto in D major for Piano (Left Hand Alone) and Orchestra’, an amazing & quite difficult  music to perform by Maurice Ravel. The soloist, Jean-Philippe Collard
was great to say the least. The music, which I have never heard before,
was captivating. Being composed by a French composer, for an Austrian
pianist and ex-soldier, who lost his right arm in WWI, was enough to
let my imagination flow with the music. I am sure that reading Ravel’s
biography (which I have not done yet), I will find many details related
to that commission. But I do not need it to appreciate, feel and admire
this concerto.

Most important for this moment: the concerto does not even have a title! I can relax and "step down from my soap box…

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May 11