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Beethoven, Poulenc, and Stravinsky: Sounding Together at the Schermerhorn

The Nashville Symphony is back! Or rather it’s on its way back. The season may now be in full-swing, but as we all continue to navigate the realities of a still-not-quite-gone crisis, it’s no surprise that the world as it once was is still slightly off into the not-too-distant future. There are still necessary compromises. This much is clear to concertgoers willing to stand in a line, vaccination card in hand and a mask around the face, but it obviously still continues to set limits on what repertoire can be programmed. Fortunately, these restrictions serve not as hindrances for the NSO, but rather opportunities to find new connections between pieces and novel ways to underscore how important a symphony orchestra really is to its community. Entitled “Beethoven’s First Plus Winds and Organ Showcase,” the program, which featured the 1947 revision of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Franc Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra & Timpani in G Minor, and lastly Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, dramatizes the challenges the Nashville Symphony faces in the coming season, but also looks full of hope toward the days when the masks and extra-precautions are a thing of the past.

Stravinsky and Debussy

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a bit of a challenge to characterize on almost any level and has apparently been so since its premiere. The piece starts off with a fitful, off-kilter fanfare and ends softly with a mournful, mostly-homophonic paean. In between these two extremes, we can see a Stravinsky himself caught in the middle of transition. There are still flashes of Petrushka and Le sacre du printemps that break through the texture, especially the grace-note-addled flourishes from the upper winds and the pulsing bassoon eighth notes toward the middle, all performed impressively and with astounding synchronization by the wind section on Friday night, but these are interspersed with long, perpetually flowing quasi-Baroque passages far more in line with the composer’s burgeoning Neo-Classicism. Arthur Rubenstein, who attended the work’s premiere in 1920, later remarked in his autobiography that the crowd at the premiere in Queen’s Hall in London broke into fits of laughter, apparently particularly during the passages with exceptionally high bassoon parts, not quite sure what to make of this new work. And perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, who had died just two years before the work’s premiere, but until its final section, Symphonies of Wind Instruments comes across almost more like a burlesque than a eulogy. And what to make of its title? As Maestro Guerrero explained to the audience on Friday night, Stravinsky wanted us to understand the word “symphonies” in its original Greek sense of “sounding together,” but no doubt the ambiguity of this word is part of the point.

 

A ten-minute work for a small ensemble with such a loose organizational structure and the word “Symphonies” printed on the program should create some form of cognitive dissonance. Stravinsky invites us to interrogate the historical assumptions we bring to a work and asks us to look back even further, to a point in time before all the various terms and forms in classical music existed, let alone had begun to accumulate so much historical baggage. It’s here I think we’re supposed to think of Debussy, whose version of musical modernism didn’t rely exclusively on building upon the techniques of a largely German-speaking symphonic canon. Instead his forays into modal scales and his emphasis on texture and timbre above rigid harmonic structure or melodic development forged a unique path and were absolutely critical to Stravinsky’s mature style. Debussy represented the future for Stravinsky, or at least enabled it, and did so by reaching back into a remote musical past. Symphonies for Wind Instruments in all its contradictions and oddities may not be well-suited as a textbook example of Neo-Classicism for students of music history, but it might just be as perfect an encapsulation of its spirit and philosophy as one is like to find.

If Stravinsky saw the musical past as liberatory, when set out to fulfill a commission for an organ concerto by the Princess Edmond de Polignac he found himself more in line with James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, for whom the past was “a nightmare from which [he was] trying to wake.” The original idea in 1934 was for a light work for organ and string orchestra that the Princess herself could perform, but four years later in 1938 when the piece finally saw its private premiere, it had undergone some significant revisions. The death of composer and Poulenc’s friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud spurred Poulenc in 1936, in the midst of composing the Organ Concerto, to take a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, where Poulenc underwent a radical religious re-awakening. Critics and scholars have often viewed the Organ Concerto as among the first of his late-period religious works, citing his letter to the Princess de Polignac where he regretfully informed his patron that “the concerto…is more like a Poulenc en route for the cloister.” Indeed, in order to write for the organ, Poulenc turned to the works of J.S. Bach and Buxtehude for reference, and as Maestro Guerrero noted in his address to the audience, the opening passage of the Concerto still sounds almost (but not quite) like some long-lost toccata in G Minor by Bach.

Organist Andrew Risinger

Poulenc transfers the religious associations of these Baroque works into the twentieth century through these metatextual references, but at the same time seems almost hellbent on resisting the past’s force of gravity. The second chord the organ plays should by all accounts be a dominant seven. And it is, except the entirely wrong scale degree, and it clashes conspicuously with the leading tone in the melody. A quick flash of horror, of the modernism of the twentieth century, that recedes largely into the background of a quiet contrapuntal passage. Then the opening toccata returns, although now the “wrong” chords are even further removed and more pronounced. Now these dissonant chords give way to a dreamy, ghostly passage out of the late-Romantic, the passage given its appropriate haunted-ness thanks to an expressive and lovely performance by the string section. But even this mournful passage once again gives way to the dissonant horror. The work is divided into seven sections that flow freely into one another, generally alternating between and combining one or more of these three sonic worlds. We in the audience were fortunate that Andrew Risinger, the soloist, sat right at the front of the stage, fingers flying across the organ manuals, feet stamping out the basslines underneath. The piece was without question the highlight of the night, brought to life by a stellar performance that captured the piece’s pious mournfulness as well as its sudden, fiery outbursts with equal aplomb.

As the night went on, the number of performers on stage gradually grew from Stravinsky’s modest wind ensemble to the still modest, but decidedly more robust full orchestra of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. The first two pieces embodied what life has been like for practically all of us over the last eighteen months—the winds and strings isolated from one another, ruminating on loss, not just of those we know and love, but also the world as we knew it. These first two works are mournful, contemplative, and obsessed with trying to understand their present through the past. It’s hard then to imagine a more apt finale for this program than Beethoven’s First Symphony. Not only are its hummable strains in bright, blistering C Major a perfect antidote to the dour nature of the rest of the evening, the novelty of Beethoven’s formal experimentation, and Maestro Guerrero’s framing of the piece as “one of the most revolutionary works ever written” gives us permission to turn our gaze confidently forward, to imagine the future in the first place. It was a joy to be back in the midst of a Beethoven symphony, the timpani and brass instruments emphasizing ones and fives; the elbows of string players sawing away at Beethoven’s simple, but inimitable melodies; all the while Maestro Guerrero seeming to dance with joy as he conducts. Works like this are what symphony orchestras were built for, and the familiar feeling of delight upon hearing a theme bounce between strings and winds may be a simple pleasure, but it’s of the sort that makes life worth living. Here’s looking forward to the rest of the NSO’s season and the gradual return of more of these wonderful old feelings.

 

 



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