Photos by Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Guest review by Anthony Bannon
The horrors had begun. The “Night of Broken Glass” was Nov. 9, 1938. It was the beginning of the “Final Solution.”
In the spring of 1939, English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten traveled to Canada and then to the United States, where he remained for three years. He came up with the idea for a concerto for violin and orchestra — it was to be his Opus 15, completed that year, premiered the next and modified by the composer throughout the next two decades.
It is a profoundly unsettling work, a matter of the heart, it seems, and played that way Thursday evening by Tasmin Little, a leader in such matters, remarkable artist and humanitarian, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, the order of chivalry established by King George V.
The night in the Amphitheater with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech, was itself a matter of heart. But first about Britten and Little.
Little came upon the stage slowly, a glittering sheath, an ultra turquoise gown, an auger of the edge she’d create, a soaring complex violin against an orchestration insistent upon its warning of conditions held otherwise.
The concerto is not a program music — it holds as much of a demonstration of a mid-century aesthetic as it creates an awareness of what other than art was happening in the world right then.
And it is just that indeterminacy which summons the need for an intentional presence from the soloist — fully a part of the orchestra, attentive and obviously appreciative of its entries, commanding the complexity of the solo part against the insistent drive of the first movement and thereafter weaving the most extraordinary song, its dolorous melody a piquant presence in the midst of clangorous sounds of alarm.
We are held transfixed by this irresolution.
Britten’s second movement races madly into the breach, an urgency to ready the position, an urban expectancy and agitation, the soloist on a high-wire tension, now a part of the anxiety. This could be the broken glass — it is a defiant ride — until Little opens a window through a brilliant cadenza to look into the heart, in search of a sonic hope that might ease the tension.
The third movement, like the first, is at a slower pace, though always punctuated by the madness, building to a threatening inevitability, in hopes of solution from the solo violin, yet never realized. Ending like the flutter of a bird, high in F, brilliantly irresolute, and left there for the longest moment by Maestro Domenech, still in his pose, a very long breath before lowering the baton for intermission.
• • •
The other side of the war followed intermission: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 70 in E-flat major. The Symphony No. 9, from 1945, was too smart for the Soviets. Not understanding it, they tried to quash it through the thought control of powerful propaganda (from the Agitation and Propaganda Department) and mindless phrases, such as “bourgeois formalism.”
Over time, the symphony resolved as one of the composer’s friendliest, marked not by complex politics or modernist manners, but by straightforward melodies that some would go so far as to call “merry.”
Never boring, No. 9 changes up its pace and sentiment — alternating through the movements, with the odd number movements played with zippy élan, and the second, where woodwinds hold forth, and the fourth, a showcase for the bassoon, in a more quiet, even contemplative mood.
Shostakovich had promised a paean to the end of the war, an encomium for victory. But this is not the rousing tribute, the heraldic march with a joyful chorus that Josef Stalin likely expected.
Yet in its happiness and classical manners, might it not in fact be the antidote to war, the return to traditional values and clarity and whimsy that a returning soldier would welcome? Such would provide a heartfelt welcome, rather than a matter of state.
Surely the symphony afforded sufficient Russian scale to satisfy. It is big, as in the third movement, and creatively reflective, as in the extended bassoon freedom of the fourth. The theatrical closure is sufficient to stir grateful audience recognition — as was the case in the Amp.
• • •
The evening began with solid academic grounding in classic literature, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859). The opera follows star-crossed lovers along an ages’ old pathway, heightened by a love potion, to a compromised but intense love — resulting in a death that, while fulfilling law, denies desire.
The CSO excerpted from the opera the prelude and the concluding transfiguration of Isolde, often played without voice. This is a frequent concert quotation described as “Prelude and Liebestod.”
Wagner wrings the Arthurian drama for every ounce of meaningful melody available, to the heights of emotion and atmosphere, as to the depths of life’s own destruction. His is the aural side of J.M.W. Turner’s sublime paintings, marking the soaring dawns of desire through the darkness of despair and into a transcendent consequence.
So much of Wagner exploits this stuff of literary legend. His objective was to contemplate, sometimes with echoes into his private life, the relationships between love and death, honor and passion, the spontaneously personal and the stolidly structural.
The powerful magic of Tristan is in its passage — how it gets where it is going — incrementally, sentence by sentence, linked together, as feelings build and organisms grow, as trees link boughs — for instance, in John Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” a poem that establishes a conjunction of trees to each other, as of people, and of sound out of silence, and of smiles from blank canvases.
Maybe Ashbery was thinking about Tristan.
In legend, Tristan finds himself overwhelmed in love (with the help of a misdirected magic, of course). Finally, he pays the ultimate price. You just can’t miss that sensibility in Wagner’s score.
Perhaps the uninitiated would miss the story, but not the sensibility nor the transfiguration, as the grieving Isolde joins her love in the fulfillment of death: the cellos, the oboes, the heartfelts, magnificently played by the CSO, passionately directed by Domenech. A night for the heart.
Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and research professor at State University of New York College at Buffalo.