Too good for our own good

A couple weeks ago I attended a concert featuring Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 given by the orchestra of the music school at the local university (Missouri-Kansas City) under the auspices of reviewing it for KC Metropolis. It was a very good performance, skillfully led by Robert Olson, who carries some pretty good cachet in the Mahler universe with good reason. And while there were details that were noteworthy (seriously, I still remember that first entrance, a Platonic ideal if there ever was one), the biggest thing I took away was the sheer quality of musical execution for much of the symphony. Remember when this shit was hard?

It stands to reason that a lot of really phenomenal music was incredibly difficult to perform when it was still considered new. Franz Strauss, father of Richard and the greatest horn player of his generation, deemed his son’s first horn concerto unplayable and wouldn’t touch it. Now it’s the most popular piece in the repertoire for freshman hornists to play at their juries (perhaps Strauss learned a lesson from this, because his second concerto is difficult to the point of absurdity and would probably never be bothered with if it wasn’t so bad ass in every conceivable respect). Playing standards improve over time, and it would be insane to try and argue that that is anything other than good. If you please, pass me my robe and my Dixie cup full of meds because sometimes our improvement sucks.

The most important way that it doesn’t suck is accessibility. Mahler symphonies, to use the initial example, used to be reserved for the best ensembles in the world, but they are increasingly receiving credible and quality performances from universities, community orchestras, and bands in rodeo towns. The proliferation of good musicians around the world in the last 20 years has been staggering, and bands that were middling in 1990 are absolutely in the same ballpark as the cream of the musical crop today. It’s like a trickle-down effect, where the Berlin Philharmonics and London Symphonys of the world leave enough terrific players to inhabit the groups in Pittsburgh and Seattle, who leave enough for Portland and Nashville, who leave enough for Little Rock and Shreveport, who leave enough for freelancers and students everywhere (I assure you this system works equally well when applied to taxes…HEY, GET OUT OF MY BLOG POST REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN OF WISCONSIN!).

But with all these great players running around, the element of danger is disappearing, and that, in my opinion, is an essential element; a lot of my favorite Mahler performances have it in spades. Take, for example, the famous recording of Mahler 6 with Barbirolli conducting the New Philharmonia (on EMI). What makes that such a great reading is the razor-thin line they walk the entire time and the sheer work put out to make it happen; it’s like a performance given by a bunch of coal miners with the threat of a catastrophic collapse around every bar line. The Tennstedt/LPO Mahler 5 has this same quality, in my opinion.

This is not to suggest that it must sound like an absolute struggle for it to be a worthwhile take, but it’s pretty hard to argue that it doesn’t help. So much of Mahler’s music is about struggle, overcoming obstacles, conquering demons, and defying the odds (or in the case of the Sixth, not really accomplishing any of those things). And the spit polish that can be achieved by so many of today’s orchestras, while impressive and eye-opening in its own way, doesn’t always feel like it generates the cosmic weight that I look for in Mahler. This is why I’m such an ardent supporter of the Pittsburgh Symphony, especially in Mahler. They go for broke like no other band on earth; occasionally you’ll hear something crazy, but you’re also likely to hear something you never even thought possible. I wish more orchestras would use their increased proficiency at musical execution to take profoundly risky paths in their music-making, but it doesn’t always seem like that’s the case, and by that I mean it’s almost never the case.

Of course, it’s difficult to fake difficulty. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed when the bass solo in the third movement of Mahler 1 sounds really God damn hard. If it lacks smoothness and there’s a couple intonation glitches, even better. I imagine if Mahler wanted something really smooth and effortless, he would have just written it for cello. Listen to old recordings and you’ll often hear it in full-on “Oh God, they’re gonna think I suck” mode, but dammit if it doesn’t sound cool as hell. But now bassists practice that lick. And they have a couple hundred recordings to hear to help them along. The result is what you’d expect: they sound like a million bucks. Even the principal at the university orchestra I heard put a lovely sheen on it, a very impressive display of his technique and musicianship, and I kept thinking “I wish he sucked more.” But what are these able musicians supposed to do? It would sound ludicrous if that kid tried to force a struggle where there wasn’t one.

I don’t entirely know where this goes from here. Being able to hear almost flawlessly executed performances of the most difficult repertoire, to quote Marlo Stanfield, “sounds like one of them good problems.” But I wonder if the sense of some of these works as musical Colossuses (Colussusi?) will diminish over time. Could Stravinsky (and Pierre Monteux) have ever imagined a day when youth orchestras were performing The Rite of Spring and conductors were leading performances without a score? It seems absurd when you look at the score, especially in the context of its time, but it took less than 100 years to become reality. Perhaps that was the biggest appeal of the recent and much-ballyhooed performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony: it was really fucking hard and it sounded like it.

This is a really dumb complaint to have, I know. But 100 years from now, when the Calgary Opera is doing the complete Licht, we’ll look back, say things like “we didn’t have such easy access to helicopters in my day” and lament when it got too easy. I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

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2 thoughts on “Too good for our own good

  1. If it comes to pass, I will return from the dead and attend the Calgary Licht cycle. And then head to Winnipeg for the Ferneyhough Fiesta. Seriously, though, some good points to ponder. The “difficulty” thing is something I struggle with as a composer. But you’re absolutely right, regional orchestras play better than ever. Listen to a recording of the Albany Symphony from the ’90s or later and compare it to the ensemble, technique and intonation of the NY Phil from the 60s. Way better. There’s more fantastic playing than ever, everywhere…

  2. Not a dumb complaint, and indeed something we’ve had to live with more and more. I think a bigger problem for student groups (not just orchestras) is the expectation of this level of performance at all times. Too often, professors will not program works which challenge the group to the extent you describe because they fear the performance will reflect poorly on them and/or the program in the eyes of administrators, parents and donors. This is not only potentially a loss for listeners like you, but also for the students. I benefited the most from my time in student ensembles on those rare occasions that the conductor put something in front of us that we could barely play. Without that, my time in music school would scarcely have been worth it at all. And of course, if everything becomes too easy, that’s a good argument in favor of writing new music that’s not.

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