Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Symphonie fantastique

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a concert I'd been eagerly anticipating all season as Gustavo Dudamel led the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of works by Mahler and Berlioz.

The program opened with the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Symphony No. 10.  At the time of his death, Mahler had completed a draft (short score) of the entire symphony but had had time to fully orchestrate only the work's first movement.  Though there were subsequent attempts to reconstruct the entire symphony, most notably by British musicologist Deryck Cooke, any such restoration invariably involved a great deal of guesswork as to the composer's intentions.  While an exellent result might have been achieved, there was no way of knowing if it truly represented the work as initially conceived.  For that reason, many conductors have opted to perform only the Adagio.  But this, of course, is only a fragment that leaves the whole a matter of conjecture.  As such, the movement cannot stand on its own and at best can only hope to convey to the audience something of the dying composer's state of mind, one that in this case might most easily be described as "distraught."  Not only was Mahler faced with his own imminent mortality but he was also tormented by the infidelity of his wife Alma at a time when he needed her most.  No wonder then that the feature that receives the most attention is the symphony's unprecedented use of dissonance, ironically at the same moment the Second Viennese School was embracing atonality.  It's impossible to say whether Mahler would have modified this characteristic if he had regained his health and his wife's affection.  One can only accept the music as the last testament of a troubled genius.

Coincidentally, I am in the midst of reading Jens Malte Fischer's biography that provides a great deal of insight into Mahler's methods of composing and conducting, so it was especially meaningful to hear the detailed manner in which the composer approached what would have been a massive symphonic work (the Adagio alone is a 30 minutes in length). 

After intermission, the program concluded with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830).  Following Beethoven's Sixth and Ninth Symphonies, this was one of the earliest instances of a composer applying a program to a symphonic work.  Although Liszt was not to coin the term "symphonic poem" for several more years, it's clear that Berlioz had anticipated him in this work even so far as realizing the importance of "thematic transformation" as the initial theme, or idée fixe, based on the protagonist's beloved was to recur in every movement, even if each time in a different form.  Berlioz himself was quite explicit on this point:
"The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression."
The scenes which the music is intended to illustrate are the most melodramatic and lurid imaginable - including a "March to the Scaffold" and a "Witches' Sabbath" - a fact that no doubt is partly responsible for the work's continued popularity. As a depiction of a self-destructive artist enraptured by a beautiful woman, the work is clearly intended as a self-portrait. It is a graphic representation of an opium dream, and it is obvious throughout that Berlioz, besotted at the time with with his love for the actress Harriet Smithson, was under the influence of some strong stimulant while composing it. My own favorite analysis of the music is that provided by Leonard Bernstein as quoted in Wikipedia:
"Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium. According to Bernstein, 'Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.'"
None of this, however, should distract from the power and innovation displayed in the music itself.  Whatever else may be said about it, Symphonie Fantastique is a truly revolutionary work.  Though Beethoven's symphonies had been written only a few years before, this is in a completely different vein.  It is safe to say nothing like it had ever been composed before, and it had enormous influence on a number of composers who followed.

The performance of Berlioz's work on Saturday evening could only be described as a triumph.  This was a case of a great conductor and a great orchestra working seamlessly together to provide the audience an unparalleled experience.  What struck me most were not the loud dramatic outbursts but the comparatively calm moments when a single instrument would softly carry the music forward. Symphonie Fantastique is an extremely popular work that I've often heard performed often over the years, but never so well as at this concert.

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