I’d better follow my gripe of the other day with something cheerier. But what? There’s an embarrassment of riches to report. In the past three weeks I’ve heard three orchestral programs, each one vastly different and each one immensely and deeply satisfying. I fear the “winning streak” won’t last, but I’m revelling in it for now.
This week was the Thomanerchor, as it’s lyrically named in German, or the St Thomas Boys’ Choir as they’re billed for English speakers, singing J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn and a smattering of Telemann. It was amazing to consider a choir where the membership is so young and yet the tradition they carry is nearly 800 years old. And boy could they sing. More important, it was an exquisitely thought-out program. I understand that the current Thomaskantor (although I’m sure his predecessors were like this too) gives much consideration to the liturgical context/shape of the music even when he’s planning a secular concert. Add to that what’s clearly a fine instinct for flow and pacing and the result is wonderful indeed. Wearing my concertgoer’s hat: it was a glorious evening.
On stage for the keen of eye and even keener of ear to spot was a cornetto or Zink, doubling the soprano line of the chorale in the Bach/Telemann piece. (I hadn’t been told, so sadly it didn’t get a mention in the program book.) These are rare enough instruments at the best of times and certainly not something you’d expect to see popping up in a symphony orchestra, even when the music is baroque. It was the concert equivalent of an Easter egg.
I always admire Andrew Ford’s introductions for this series (Meet the Music) – on top of his substantial musical knowledge and imagination, he has a real gift for knowing how to present an idea in such a way that it doesn’t go over the head of a novice and yet it remains interesting for the musical expert. I might know all the facts and ideas that he’s sharing, but it’s still a pleasure to listen to him and there’s always something illuminating to be found in either what he says or the way he says it. On-stage concert presentation is one of those things that many argue isn’t strictly necessary. Which means if it’s to be done at all it needs to be done very well indeed. Andy does that.
On Wednesday night his summing up of motet versus cantata – word versus song – and the significance of that was just beautiful. Then introducing the distinctions between the pieces doubled by the orchestra and those accompanied by the orchestra by saying “The orchestra’s on stage, but you haven’t really heard them yet…” And I loved the way he put us in Bach’s shoes: what would he have thought of this thing called a concert hall, let alone hearing church music in it, let alone hearing applause for sacred music even at the ends of pieces…? Then picking up on Mendelssohn’s contribution to this thing called a concert hall and the canon of classical music, and still managing to bring it around to the implications for new music today. (“Sing to the Lord a new song” was a running theme in the program.) We, says Thomasina in her concertgoer hat again, are so very lucky to have presentations of this calibre.
The other riches of concerts past? A performance on Friday night of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. Yes, I know there was a violin concerto (and played by a soloist whose Tchaikovsky I much admire), but this was all about Shostakovich. Despite living in fearful adoration of his piccolo parts, I don’t always warm to Shostakovich – I think Prokofiev, for example, is a much more interesting and imaginative composer who writes better tunes. So for the most part I would rather sit in the middle of an orchestra playing Shostakovich (and the Tenth Symphony is a staple of youth orchestras everywhere!) than sit in a concert hall listening to him. But this was an interpretation and a performance that really worked for me. It had an authentic quality that I liked and I was less conscious than usual of the aspects of the music that I tend to hear as crude and overblown. Heck, I should come right out and say I found it moving.
This concert was preceded by a talk by Scott Davie, pianist and Russian music scholar. He said many interesting things, but there was one image in particular that absolutely stuck for me. Having introduced the idea of Shostakovich’s “signature tune” DSCH (D, E flat, C, B), he then referred to the conclusion of the symphony, where the timpani is left belting out this ominous sounding motif under an apparently (it’s always apparently with Shostakovich) cheery ending. It was as if, he said, Shostakovich had taken a can of spray-paint and was graffiti-ing the symphony with his name. Literally “tagging” it, you could say.
The beginning of this winning streak was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, about which I’ve already had a lot to say, although none of it in retrospect. I ended up experiencing it three-and-a-half times and it deserves a post or two of its own. I’m not necessarily promising those posts, but we’ll see.