Think, feel, take a deep breath, listen and enjoy – I felt like that was what Sunday’s program, Haydn in London, was designed to achieve, and they accomplished just that.
The evening started with Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre (1958), a string piece dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók. The one-movement piece walked us through the Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogeum and Epilogue. The emotional center of the piece is the Apogeum, a distressing outcry of grief and loss. Hearing it, I can only imagine it expresses the long suffering of a composer and a country that endured despite the pain. The music had a deeply emotional impact on me.
This piece also represented a turning point in his career. In his words, “it is a beginning of a new period and a result of my long experience. I tried to create a range of means that would become my own. And it is the first word – though obviously not the last one – spoken in what is a new language for me.” I was amazed by the comment, as the piece seems so fully developed and mature despite it being his “first words.” I guess this is a testament to Lutosławski’s mastery as a composer. I was also very moved and impressed by the near-flawless performance of the Orchestra.
The second piece of the evening was John Adams’ The Wound Dresser. Adams sets Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name over an orchestration reminiscent of the battlefield: unrelenting, endless and spectral. The poem is sung with expertise by baritone Brian Mulligan. Mulligan’s voice is rich and powerful, like dark roast coffee and chocolate. He breathes emotion into Whitman’s explicit yet unembellished description of the aftermath of battle. He brings the compassion and pain in the piece to the forefront. Each and every element of this piece, the music, the poetry and the voice, were wonderful. However, I felt the whole fell short of its parts. The vocalized poetry never really intertwined or incorporated with the music. The two ran parallel to each another, but never quite married. This kept me from becoming fully engaged with the piece, though not from appreciating the excellence of the performers.
Then, we took a breath.
After intermission, we were treated with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 – and hat a pleasure it was! It was scored for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, a keyboard instrument (fortepiano originally) and strings. Though somewhat less famous than the “London Symphonies” (such as the Surprise, Military, Clock or Drumroll), it takes a back seat to none in terms of quality and ingenuity. Also, did I recognize a bit of “God Save the King” in there? Shout out to the soloists, they were just lovely, including a charming, pastoral trio in which the solo doubles the violins’ melody. The Finale remained unpredictable throughout. There was a particularly delicious moment at the very end, an eleven-measure solo bit for keyboard, which was just delightful (especially the turquoise harpsichord on which it was played)! I understand that Haydn wrote it for himself as an aural equivalent of a painter’s signature in the corner of a canvas.
Lastly, we heard Rossini’s overture from his opera, The Italian Girl in Algiers, a lovely, lively confection full of energy and novelty. You have to admit the man had faultless comic timing! The piece opened with the same gag that Haydn used in his “Surprise” Symphony: lull the audience with a quiet, unassuming opening, then hit them right between the eyes (ears?) with the whole Orchestra. HELLO! There wasn’t a dull moment in the entire piece.
One final note: one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Jeffrey Kahane is the context that he gives when he speaks about what the Orchestra is going to perform for us. As a novice fan of orchestral music, it enhances my listening experience greatly and stimulates my interest to learn more. I really appreciated that Carlos Kalmar, the guest conductor for the evening, did that as well. His thoughts and comments were illuminating, charming and educational. I hope that whoever follows in Kahane’s footsteps will also recognize the value of these expository moments, as I feel it can only solidify and broaden the audience for this wonderful orchestra.