Hi folks. This is Paul and I’m afraid I’ll be your sole host for this blog installment, as Dee was sick last night and couldn’t come to the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the SPCO’s performances at Temple Israel. Instead, I went with my friend Matt, who was roughly in the position I was in a little more than a year ago, having never seen a classical music concert, but game to try it out.
I have to admit that the OAE is the orchestra I’ve most been anticipating, because it is a chance to see one of the original “period instrument” organizations. Before we began, I explained to Matt as best I could the differences between period instrument ensembles and the more traditional modern ensembles, like historically informed tunings, scores etc. I tried not to make too much of these differences though, since they seem to have lessened over the years as the most eminently sensible insights of the historically informed music advocates have taken hold. Matt said it reminded him of debates on the Supreme Court between the strict constructionists and the interpretationists (sorry—did I just coin a startling ugly neologism?). I thought this comment nicely thought-provoking, because of course, Matt’s right: this debate about history and its recoverability has been staged and restaged many times in many places.
But the music, the music: a wonderfully exuberant Mozart to begin with, the cellists smooth and high, then buzzing low, the violins and violas lively and joyous. Having not heard Mozart live in a while, I had unaccountably forgotten the sprightly freshness, the skipping good-to-be-alive-and-be-here quality of his music. The OAE’s playing couldn’t have been more perfect in capturing this characteristically Mozartian quality. Then the second movement, which reminded me (just as I was asking, “is that all there is?”), of the sublimity in Mozart, brought out by the OAE’s slightly astringent, plaintive violins, seeking and finding, if not answers, at least the right questions. Finally, a presto movement to bring it all together, sublimely sprightly.
The Haydn violin concerto was a stunner. Podger was tremendous, jaw-droppingly in control of her tone. Lovely, lovely, lovely. I wrote, on the little piece of paper I carry with me for notes on life, “words fail me.” And they do. By this time, Matt was looking star-struck, like me, but perhaps more so, since it was his first time and it was a very good time indeed. I asked him what he thought of the concerto (he having just learned what a concerto was) and he said, “It was beautiful.” Perfect. I really have nothing to add. Thanks, Matt.
For the last act of the program, we got to see my beloved SPCO perform Shostakovich, who I’ve read about, but about whose music I am almost entirely ignorant. In retrospect, I can see what a smart choice this 1946 piece was, with its apparently traditionalist modernity, to close a show opened by the OAE’s original instrument Baroque. The piece and the performance seemed designed to elicit and even comment upon what was distinctive and distinguished about the SPCO as a performing ensemble. Their distinction is certainly clear (if one had any doubts, which as an unabashed partisan, I do not) by the fourth movement, an ominous lamentation, almost a warning dirge. At the climax of the movement, unearthly violins cry out as a chorus, echoed by a bassoon’s soberer, yet even more unnerving barely held-in-check hysteria (unnerving in part because somehow we don’t expect the lower wind instruments to be hysterical; must be a cultural thing). Shamefully, Matt and I had not read the program notes (which by the way, have been very good this year in my and Dee’s opinion—genuinely informative and stylistically tops), but when we compared notes right after the piece ended, it turned out we had both been thinking of Stalinism’s through the looking glass world—perhaps incapable of really acknowledging head-on the tragedy of the 20 million Russians killed in the war.
So, sadly, the concert ended. Clapping and back to real life. But live classical music has won another convert—when Dee and I see the OAE again on Sunday at Ted Mann, we’re going to try and snag tickets for Matt and his wife. Like Matt, I too had thought live classical music, while no doubt improving, would be boring (although I planned to keep that a secret). This concert reminded me how wrong I had been, as I keep discovering over and over again, to my delighted surprise.