Thursday, April 18, 2019

Strauss and Daugherty: Space Odysseys with the PSO

The Return of Zarathustra (artist unknown).


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The April concert in the PSO’s 2018-19 Classical Series was the sort of thing that it does so well: a substantial new commission (audience-friendly but not vapidly so); a well-chosen Classical concerto to contrast and to reassure fainter hearts of the eternal verities; and finally a late-Romantic blockbuster to show off fully the acoustic chops of the marvelous Segerstrom Hall (and, as it was Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, its organ).

Michael Daugherty.
Michael Daugherty is in the top small handful of most-performed living American composers, and the recipient of numerous commissions. He was Composer-in Residence for the 2010-11 PSO season, and the orchestra had already commissioned three works from him in 2010, 2011 and 2012; now his fourth and latest, To the New World, received its world première at this concert. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and, like many of his previous pieces, is in three movements though not, again as previously, to any kind of fast-slow-fast template.

Daugherty’s extensive work list shows that he thrives on extra-musical subjects—which he also loves to describe and analyze his responses to—though it’s unfair to characterize these subjects as predominantly “pop” in origin. They are indeed overwhelmingly American, but encompass not only comic-books, popular musics and movies, but also buildings, cities and monuments both man-made and natural, literature, visual art, Presidents and other individuals, mechanization and transport, science, space, and time—plus cross-links between many of these.

Apollo ll
official emblem.
True to form, To the New World was not lacking in copious explanation, with advance PSO blog-posts, detailed program notes, an onstage interview with Alan Chapman in the pre-concert talk and, via the screen above the orchestra, a short pre-recorded video conversation with the evening’s guest conductor, the Canadian Jean-Marie Zeitouni, immediately before he raised his baton.

To the New World's 26 minutes contained a lot to unpack. The first of numerous homages, quotes and references, both musical and non-musical, came at the start of the first movement, “Moonrise,” with the actual tape of President Kennedy’s 1962 “We go to the Moon…” speech. This didn’t quite work; a little too much of it was used, and the 57-year-old news recording wasn’t clear enough to distinguish all the words, despite the Hall’s state-of-the-art sound system. An option for future performances might be an actor speaking, though of course verisimilitude would be lost.

György Ligeti.
NASA’s original count-down with the sound of the mighty Saturn V lifting off followed, and then another homage, musical this time and to a movie—the only appropriate one, given that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had premièred just 15 months earlier and was still very much in the public’s eyes and ears. Thus almost the first music to be heard was the brass clusters from Ligeti’s Atmosphères, used over the film’s pre-credits introduction.

Neil Armstrong.
Daugherty’s extensive research found Neil Armstrong to have played euphonium at college, so that instrument had a conspicuous role, intoning a distinctive three-note motif many times, as did a wordless soprano (Elissa Johnston), standing in for the theremin the composer referenced as emblematic of “outer-space music.” And, as Armstrong took a cassette of Dvořák’s “New World” symphony with him, there were the opening brass chords of the Largo, portentous but enigmatically inconclusive away from their original context.

Armstrong steps onto the Moon’s surface, July 20, 1969.

Movement 2, “One Small Step,” began as by now was predictable, with the 11 famous words by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the lunar surface, Daugherty then imposing a rhythmic pattern onto them with percussion both tuned and untuned.

So far so fine, but he also added the soprano speaking the words to the rhythm; for me this was faintly risible, and though Ms. Johnston's contribution per se was excellent and should be acknowledged, the gimmicky effect was exacerbated by the live video’s relentless focus on her face. Less amplified, and emanating anonymously from within the orchestral texture, the effect might just work. Add to this lots of busyness that recalled energetic Bernstein more than anything, and the whole was, for me, a long way from evoking that singular moment in human history.

The finale, “Splashdown,” grew from glissandi on timpani and waterphone, then double-bass and 'cello rumbles, up through the orchestra to more sub-Bernstein rhythms and trombone fanfaring, to one of Daugherty’s signature Pelion-upon-Ossa climaxes. He is a master orchestrator who draws exciting sounds from all over the orchestra, which the PSO clearly enjoyed playing (all his works I’ve so far heard could reasonably be subtitled “concerto for orchestra” when they aren’t concertos for individual players), but as with others I listened to in preparation for this concert, To the New World has plenty to beguile the ear but little, for this listener, to stimulate the mind or engage the heart.

Juno Pohjonen.
Though my membership of the Mozart-can-do-no-wrong fan club lapses from time to time, it would be idle to deny that his mature piano concertos are an astonishing series of masterpieces, amongst which No. 23 in A major K. 488 is one of the smaller-scaled but also one of the most perfectly proportioned and indeed moving, with its progress from the blithest of openings through increasing shadows in the first movement to the melancholy of the Andante, and then the most airborne and concise of rondo finales. 

M. Zeitouni and a PSO drastically reduced to little more than half string strength plus two horns and handful of woodwind gave the opening Allegro a sort of general-purpose robustness, and when the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen entered he continued with an account that could be deemed admirably straightforward, or less charitably as rather faceless, depending on your view of the concerto. Nonetheless, there was no denying the stillness he conjured in his solo statement of the second subject, nor the keening gravity that the winds brought to their counter-subject in the slow movement. The finale was despatched efficiently but without initially much sense of joy, thought spirits definitely lifted when the home straight was reached.

Bust of Rameau
by Caffieri, 1760.
Mr. Pohjonen unexpectedly returned for a solo encore just as the audience was beginning to shuffle up interval-bound, and this—which I couldn’t get further than identifying as Baroque-but-not-Bach and am grateful to Jean Oelrich of the PSO for subsequently telling me was the Sarabande from Rameau’s Suite in A minor RCT 5—was in some ways more impressive than anything in the Mozart. The trills with which the piece is laden were wonderfully discreet and even in his hands, and on the piano it had a musing delicacy quite absent from the harpsichord performances I found on YouTube.

Strauss in 1894, the year he began
sketching Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Despite the enduring glare of extra-terrestrial fame shone by Kubrick upon Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra through the use of its opening over 2001: A Space Odyssey’s credits, its subsequent 30 minutes remain far less well-known than the first minute-and-three-quarters, as M. Zeitouni pointed out in a brief spoken introduction before conducting the complete work.

He concisely sketched in the relationship between the tone-poem and Nietzsche’s strange philosophical/poetic/dramatic “book for everyone and nobody,” and homed in on how Strauss in his music expressed through the unrelated keys C major and B major the duality of nature and humanity, a duality that never quite comes together. All this augured well for his performance: not to put too fine a point on it, M. Zeitouni and the PSO at super-full strength hit it out of the park. 

The titles of the nine sections into which Strauss divides the score were duly projected on the screen above the orchestra, but paradoxically this underlined how integrated Also Sprach becomes in the hands of a conductor with both the mastery of long-range structural planning and the ability to draw moment-by-moment the utmost in expressive intensity from his players.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni.
After that famous “Sunrise” opening, the next six sections succeed each other rapidly and continuously. Faithful to Strauss’s Sehr langsam tempo, M. Zeitouni made the fugue on solo double-basses and ‘celli that begins the sixth section, Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)—which can sound merely gawky in lesser hands—into the deep, still heart of the piece, leading directly into Der Genesende (The Convalescent) and the mighty reiteration of the opening’s fff C major chord on full orchestra and organ which falls at its center, and indeed divides the whole work into two approximately equal halves.

Friedrich Nietzsche.
From here the music once more climbed, again appropriately slowly in M. Zeitouni’s hands, out of the deep pit into which that climax had plunged it, until it arrived at section 8, Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song), where PSO concertmaster Dennis Kim in beguiling form led his multi-subdivided string forces in Strauss (Richard)’s complex swirling homage to and apotheosis of Strauss (Johann)’s Viennese waltz.

This in turn built inexorably until the (really!) deep bell in E tolled the 12 strokes of midnight in the Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer). The enigmatic, indeterminate end, with high piccolos, flutes and violins repeating their B major while far beneath ‘cellos and basses pluck repeated C's, was as finely drawn and suspended in their eternal “n’er the twain shall meet” as could be imagined.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, April 11, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Zarathustra: Penguin Random House Publishing LLC; Apollo 11 emblem, Neil Armstrong, Armstrong steps onto the Moon: NASA; Michael Daugherty: Wikimedia Commons; Ligeti: Discogs; Juno Pohjonen: Opera Musica; Rameau: Wikimedia Commons; Strauss: Wikimedia Commons; Jean-Marie Zeitouni: Conductor website, Nietszche: SciHi Blog.

1 comment:

Jim Ruggirello said...

Alas, Mason Bates is the most-performed living American composer. It's an unjust world.