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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Concert Review: Famous When You're Dead

The Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia plays Mahler and Sciarrino.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Antonio Pappano.
Photo © 2010 Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
What is "fame"? What is the "canon"? And what is the elusive quality that entitles a composer to enshrinement in that small group of music makers that have been venerated from one century to the next, their works resounding in concert halls around the world. Those thoughts apply to Saturday night's concert at Carnegie Hall, where the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and Sir Antonio Pappano offered an evening in two parts: the New York premiere of a new work by Salvatore Sciarrino and Gustav Mahler's weighty Symphony No. 6.

After some delay, the orchestra took the stage, followed by the concertmaster and Sir Antonio, who took the mic and offered a short lecture on Sciarrino, who he was, and the nature of the new work before us. Titled La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke, it is a reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth with a feminist focus on Orpheus' ill-starred wife. Sciarrino eschewed mythology in favor of the writings of the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Here, the text was set in Italian, to be sung by the fearless and talented soprano Barbara Hannigan.

To couch his little drama, Sciarrino chose to use his mid-sized orchestral forces in unconventional ways that suggested the artistic anarchy of the Italian movement of Futurism. (That's a charitable way to describe it.) Woodwind players were commanded to blow circulating breaths through their instruments, producing haunted sighs as if recreating the moaning of the damned in the corridors of Hades. The strings are ordered to make keening sounds and scrapes, bowing near the bridge in an effort to make an unpleasant sound. Even the percussion was unconventional, a hanging metal plate and thunder sheet deployed at the very lip of the stage, a Cerebrus-like guardian of the mayhem within.

Over this dubious enterprise, Ms. Hannigan declaimed, warbled, stammered and did pretty much everything...except actually sing. Thanks to the decree that Eurydice must stammer, the adapted Italian text was rendered incomprehensible, and coupled with the dim lighting that made it difficult to follow the printed libretto, dissolved into a wordless melisma. (Presumably this was the creator's intent.) In any event, the piece ground forward for thirty minutes, taking its audience on a descent into the underworld of post-modern music, a place from which they were delivered only by rounds of polite Carnegie Hall applause.

Like Signor Sciarrino today, Gustav Mahler was a composer who struggled for recognition in his lifetime. He was acclaimed as a conductor of opera and symphony but struggled to get his own huge works mounted. That struggle is reflected in the Symphony No. 6, a huge four-movement work and the only one of his mature works to end on a note of depression and utter defeat. Nicknamed the "Tragic", this work is known to enthusiasts as "The one with the hammer," reflecting the unusual percussion requirement of the finale: the sickening thud of a giant hammer  of fate.

Although the Orchestra was founded (in 1908) as an Italian ensemble dedicated to playing symphonic works, Sir Antonio's experience lies primarily in the world of opera. That may account for the sense of drama that infused the first movement, a long dialogue between a relentless marching figure in the low strings and a lyrical outpouring that Mahler meant as a depiction of his wife Alma. The conductor chose the heavy-handed Scherzo to go second (the order is optional between the middle movements) underlining the sense of paranoia and tension that infused the symphony.

It seemed that the sun would break through in the third movement, a lyric Andante that is among Mahler's most accessible movements. This is not the sugary love-music of the Fifth but a more mature reflection on his relationship with his wife, a movement that wound forward at a sure, but stately pace. The enormous finale dropped the listener into a new sound-world entirely. The mysterious "backward" sounding chords evoked the otherworldly struggle that was about to take place, one in which the surging, marching orchestra is stopped in its procession by the abrupt strike of the hammer. Here, Maestro Pappano elected to only include the first two hammer-blows, adhering to Mahler's decision to cut the third. It still had plenty of impact.

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