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January 7, 2012

Catarrh

The weather in Northern California these days is unremittingly gorgeous.  It's warm enough to go outside with just a sweater, or even in shirtsleeves, and we haven't seen a drop of rain in weeks.  Why, then, did so many people at last night's San Francisco Symphony concert seem to be suffering from horrendous, irrepressible winter coughs?

I guess it was the program.  I have long since noticed that disgruntled audience members use coughing as their way of making their opinions known.  They may not know that this is what they are doing--the reflex may be unconscious. But that "reflex" is clearly preventable, for these same annoying coughers always manage to hold off when they like the music. Unfortunately, the audience at Friday's SFS concert did not like Ligeti. 

We were being treated this weekend to the San Francisco premiere of Ligeti's Violin Concerto, with the complicated, delicate, nearly impossible solo part undertaken by the matchless Christian Tetzlaff.  Michael Tilson Thomas must have sensed that there might be difficulties:  just before he picked up his baton, he spoke for a few minutes to introduce the audience to the piece, something he only does when he thinks it's really needed.  Alas, his intervention did no good.  Practically from the beginning of the five-movement work (Ligeti's 1992 revision of his three-movement concerto from 1990), the natives grew restless.  They not only coughed during the quietest and tenderest parts of the music; they also rustled their programs, retrieved drinks and snacks from their purses, whispered to their companions, and otherwise made their presence felt.  One gent a few rows behind me even spoke a few incomprehensible words aloud--whether because he was having medical problems or hating the music was not clear--and then left his seat mid-movement. 

Because the instrumentation for this work is small-scale and weird (a sprinkling of strings and flutes, a small array of brass, a larger array of percussion and keyboard instruments, and a few wild cards like ocarinas and slide whistles), and because the solo part so often descends to near-silence in its complex scurryings and retreats, the audience interference really interfered.  I have never failed to enjoy a Tetzlaff concert, and I was glad to hear him at this one, but I had to strain to do so.  Strain is of course part of what Ligeti intended here--we are not supposed to be entirely comfortable with this music that sometimes sounds like players tuning up, at other times verges on Romany-style ecstasy, and frequently mingles tones that don't really go together harmonically--but I don't think he quite pictured the degree of strain that the San Francisco naysayers imposed on their fellow listeners.  I was ready to hit the woman next to me, who coughed loudest during Tetzlaff's most extended and compelling solo. 

That such coughing was by no means an irrelevant mistake, a mere by-product of illness, became clear during the applause, when fully a third of the audience sat on its hands or tepidly brought its fingers together.  However loudly the rest of us may have clapped and roared (and we enthusiasts called Tetzlaff back to the stage four times), we could not disguise the fact that the people on either side of us hated and resented the piece. 

Where does this intense resentment stem from?  The work was listed on the program; the concert-goers knew in advance that they were going to get Ligeti sandwiched in between their Liszt and their Tchaikovsky.  Yet they acted as if they had been surprised unfairly.  They also behaved as if something were being rudely taken away from them--as if this "modern" music threatened to rise up from its seat, grab away the kind of music they liked, and destroy it on the spot.  They seemed to feel, that is, that the romantic melodies of Tchaikovsky and the stark disharmonies of Ligeti were at war, and they knew which side they were on.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  MTT had cunningly designed the program so that Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, which came after the intermission, could be appreciated anew through the conjunction. The Ligeti work, in a way that went beyond its own virtues as a piece of music, served to elaborate and explore some of what was going on in its nineteenth-century predecessor.  After hearing Ligeti's gypsy rhythms and off-tuned arpeggios, for instance, I was much more alert to similar derivations from folk music in the Tchaikovsky; and after watching the instruments stand out as soloists or pairs in the Ligeti, I was much more likely to notice such moments of relative quiet in the symphony, which has a surprising number of places where many of the musicians just sit silently by.  Unusual combinations (of flute with strings, of pizzicato background with arco foreground, of deep-throated brasses matched with equally deep basses) caught my eye and ear in the Tchaikovsky because I had just seen them elucidated in the Ligeti.  And of course the virtues that Ligeti did not possess, and probably did not even aim for--the youthful enthusiasm of those final clashing cymbals, the galloping impulse of the repeated musical motifs, the sweet familiarity of the whole thing--stood out even more clearly in the Tchaikovsky symphony than they normally do. 

Ligeti cannot hurt Tchaikovsky or Bach, just as Beckett cannot hurt Dickens or Shakespeare.  On the contrary, the modernist who truly understands his forebears can show us their virtues anew, even as he begs to differ with their approach to reality.  In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, those old-fashioned comforts may no longer be available to us in immediate, unadulterated form:  too much death and despair separate our present composers from their past masters for the musical forms to remain the same.  But we can still have the whole range of musical experiences, whole and undestroyed, if we are alert and open enough.  Nothing that is new will wipe out the past; the old stuff is still there for the taking.  Yet we can only take it in fully, in a way that makes sense to (and of) our time, if we also listen to what the music of the present is telling us. 
January 7, 2012 11:29 AM | | Comments (0)

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