Upshaw, Eschenbach, NSO in late-Romantic quest

Tonal Webern? New-and-improved Schubert? Eclectic Mahler? Seriously intriguing but where was the audience? Photo: Dario Acosta

Washington (April 8, 2011)On the face of it, the program for Thursday evening’s National Symphony Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center didn’t look promising. Although popular soprano Dawn Upshaw was the featured soloist, the bill of fare began with an almost completely unknown piece by Anton Webern, one of the three primary horsemen of the atonal apocalypse. (Schoenberg and Berg are the other two.)

Next up: arrangements of four Schubert songs by some guy named Osvaldo Golijov. And as a finale, conductor and music director Christoph Eschenbach chose Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a virtual chamber work in that composer’s immense compositional universe.

Dawn Upshaw.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw. (Photo: Dario Acosta.)

An atonalist. A relative unknown. And—a Mahler symphony almost entirely lacking in that composer’s trademark sturm und drang. Ergo, a lot of empty seats Thursday evening.

One problem, though. This seemingly haphazard program was actually planned out with the greatest of care. It was not even remotely what it initially appeared to be.

Jaded NSO fans need to pay closer attention to the new Maestro’s more intellectual approach to all things musical.

Take Webern’s Im Sommerwind (The Summer Wind), Thursday’s metaphorical leadoff batter. Instead of the understandably anticipated twelve-tone Webern whiff, the audience was treated to something entirely different. Before Webern fell under the spell of Arnold Schoenberg, he was an enthusiastic admirer of the works of Gustav Mahler, regarded by many today as the titan of the late and already splintering Romantic era. And, Im Sommerwind, completed in 1904, actually dates from Webern’s brief pre-atonal period.

While few in number, Webern’s early compositions were greatly influenced by Mahler’s creative orchestration as well as his innovative early stretches into an “extended tonality” that pushed the boundaries of traditional symphonic sound. Yet, after beginning his studies with Schoenberg, Webern abandoned this direction entirely, rejecting and concealing the very existence of these early works from public view.

First rediscovered in 1960, and never heard in performance by its composer, Im Sommerwind is a charming, complex, and frequently exultant tone poem, depicting in the abstract the unfurling of summer in all its muscular glory.

Flush with Mahlerian flourishes in the horns, occasionally punctuated by odd modulations and tone clusters, shimmering with percussive surprises, this is a marvelously mature work by a twenty-one year old composer who was already building on contemporary traditions to create a distinctive new voice.

In short, Webern’s Im Sommerwind is a distinctive, original, unusual piece that’s wholly accessible and entirely enjoyable. Who knew? Indeed, it was a wonderful surprise for anyone who expected to need a pair of earplugs. Under Maestro Eschenbach, the NSO gave the piece a robust and joyful reading—save, briefly, for the horns, which did some oddly sloppy stuff in the early innings.

With this most pleasurable preliminary sally out of the way, the orchestra and Maestro Eschenbach welcomed soprano Dawn Upshaw to the stage. And again, another surprise. She strode purposefully in garbed in…what? A distinctly casual, not very attractive black pantsuit, more or less, crowned with a billowy, white-dappled, oversized top. The ensemble was lightly iced with a nearly floor length off-white scarf, vaguely resembling a faux-feather flapper-era boa.

While we generally refrain from criticizing a female artist’s decorator fashion touches, this one deserves comment at least, for its seeming incongruity. Was it simply a bad choice, or was there a method to the seeming madness? (The answer in a moment.)

Accompanied by the NSO, Ms. Upshaw proceeded to perform “‘She Was Here’: Four Songs by Schubert,” by Osvaldo Golijov. Unknown to this writer until this concert, Mr. Golijov is a contemporary Argentinian composer of Eastern European Jewish extraction. Now a resident in the U.S., he’s regarded as an artist whose compositions range among a variety of classical and popular styles. Perhaps more importantly, he’s collaborated with Ms. Upshaw with some frequency, so she’s a key interpreter of his work.

Composed in 2008, this song cycle/suite fashions a new musical fabric with which to clothe four different Schubert songs. Each one explores the feelings of sorrow and loss that one frequently experiences in the midst of life’s journey.

It’s not a certainty that Schubert’s already marvelous art songs require rearrangement for our own times. But Mr. Golijov’s settings envelop and transform this suite into a vocal tone poem with orchestral accompaniment, echoing in some ways the Webern composition with which the evening began. This was particularly evident in the oddly shimmering percussion passages, accentuated roughly two thirds of the way through, by the addition of a tuned water glass to the mix.

Intriguingly, Mr. Golijov’s orchestration and additional embellishments anticipated the Mahler symphony that followed the intermission, allowing us to discern the methodology of the evening’s musical selections, which collectively convey the sensual experiences throughout life’s journey. In addition, most evidently in the Mahler, the music also explores the difficult choices made when balancing the wonders of innocence with the burdens of experience.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is, topically at least, distinctive for two reasons. First, it’s his shortest, clocking in more or less at fifty minutes, depending on how fast a conductor takes its wildly varying tempos.

Second, it’s Mahler’s most understated symphony. Yes, there are at least a few classic Mahlerian outbursts of passion in the Fourth. But, by and large, this is a quiet and even an intimate symphony, rendered even more personal by the fact that Mahler doesn’t employ trombones or a tuba at all. The bombast just isn’t there.

This most accessible of Mahler symphonies, however, like all of them, has its own distinctive touches. The first is the appearance, in the second, scherzo-like movement, of a solo violin tuned a whole-tone above the rest of the violins, creating in its solo moments a kind of danse macabre—although the NSO program notes take a somewhat different tack on this.

In any event, these brilliantly evocative moments were performed cleanly, boldly, and with a studied musical insouciance by the NSO’s skillful concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef.

Ms. Upshaw returned for the symphony’s finale, which features an extended soprano solo set to “Das Himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”)—verses from the composer’s favorite folk poetry collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). In this selection, a young boy enthusiastically details his strange journey through a very unexpected version of Heaven.

Threading his way past various angels and saints in their ethereal gardens and taverns, he happily glimpses fish being caught and lambs and oxen being sacrificed. A surprisingly bloody-minded heavenly vision, this. Yet it tracks with the oddball mind of a prototypical young boy who today might be looking to amuse himself with a violent video game; or who might find fun in blowing up an ant-hill with a cherry bomb. It’s all oddly innocent in its own violent way.

These concluding verses are yet another musical example of Mahler’s odd theology. Born a Jew but converting to Christianity as an adult, the better to access society and its perks in German-Austrian society, the composer became weirdly fascinated by his semi-adopted religion. We see this early on in the finale to his “Resurrection” Symphony (Number 2), in which orchestra, soloists, and chorus describe the explosive end of all time that leads to the Last Judgment. Except, in Mahler’s Hereafter, the actual Judgment is dispensed with. Everyone gets to ascend into a glorious afterlife, saints and sinners alike.

The finale of the Fourth Symphony details roughly the same thing in miniature and on a more intimate scale. The pleasures of the afterlife here are not much different from the simple pleasures of a young boy, just more carefree. Mahler’s whole theological zeitgeist becomes oddly Zen.

Which gets us back to Ms. Upshaw’s strange garb. It would seem that she chose to outfit herself for this concert in a way that might appeal to Mahler’s young boy-narrator. It’s a part hippie, part goth ensemble expressing freedom and a devil-may-care attitude. After all, as the soloist in both the Golijov-Schubert and Mahler compositions, she is our tour guide through eternity, sometimes the Wanderer, sometimes the Wayfarer, sometimes Mahler’s equivalent of Huck Finn. She becomes, in short, the character she’s expressing, right down to the obvious little-boy swagger she employs as she sings Mahler’s final movement.

It’s a nifty concept, really, even if it doesn’t always work—and even if our interpretation of her outfit doesn’t quite hit the mark.

In any event, the real tour guide for this production is actually Maestro Eschenbach, who seems to have an uncanny knack for creating spiritual concept programming of which the current concert series is only the latest example.

Mr. Eschenbach’s intellectual forays show up in his conducting style as well, particularly in the Mahler. During Thursday evening’s concert, the first movement launched much more rapidly than is usually the case. Successive tempo changes, while in Mahler’s score, were exaggerated, rubato-style, giving almost the sense that Mr. Eschenbach and the orchestra were actually improvising depending upon what the momentary mood inspired.

If not taken to excess, this sort of thing works quite well in the music of the mercurial Mahler, making for a lively performance that can be full of surprises. And so it was Thursday evening. The NSO performed superbly and energetically and really seemed to enjoy themselves, something not always evident in the concluding years of Mr. Eschenbach’s predecessor at the helm.

In turn, Ms. Upshaw fit right in with the spirit of the evening, relishing her interplay with the orchestra as the audience’s trouser-role tour guide. Her light but highly expressive voice, while occasionally buried in the orchestral fabric, expressed an almost Blakean wonder and astonishment at every turn, particularly in the Mahler, slightly less so in the Schubert arrangement.

Tickets remain for this evening’s reprise of Thursday’s program. We suggest you put aside any Webern phobias you might have and link to the NSO’s Kennedy Center website. You’ll be glad you did.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars.)


Soapbox postscript: Mr. Eschenbach seems fond here and elsewhere of conducting certain passages not only pianissimo but pianississimo. In other words, he has taught the NSO to play competently and well even at an extraordinarily low volume. It’s actually quite an exquisite effect. Except that oftentimes, the audience doesn’t help—particularly this past Thursday evening.

It appears that there’s a nasty cold virus going around. (Your reviewer is coming down with it now.) And sneezing and coughing were very much in evidence Thursday.

Perhaps your reviewer is getting crankier as he gets older. But is there any reason why coughers and sneezers have to indulge in this activity during Maestro Eschenbach’s pianississimo moments? Or, perhaps worse, during that poignant flute or English horn solo? And why must the hacking be vocalized so, particularly by the males in the audience, to the extent where it sounds like a crude stump speech?

Back in the day, when it seemed like one’s coughing or sneezing might get out of control during a concert, a gentleman would excuse himself and, as quietly as possible, slip out of the concert hall until he could get things under control. After all, when a soloist or ensemble goes the last mile to create an exquisite experience for the audience, isn’t it common courtesy not to interfere? Please consider this the next time you feel compelled to let loose with a blast rivaling the decibel level of an old, unmuffled 727.

There. We feel better already.

There remains, of course, that irritating matter of slow-motion cough drop unwrapping, usually a specialty of the ladies and always during that solo flute passage. But we’ll get to this in a future rant.

Read more of Terry’s work at “Curtain Up!” in the Communities at the Washington Times.

-cl- 4/10/11

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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