Saturday, February 12, 2011

NSO builds on "Black Swan" by presenting Tchaikovsky's "Manfred Symphony" at Kennedy Center

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Tonight, I attended a National Symphony Orchestra concert for the first time, well, in a while. Back in 2003 I had sold season tickets for the NSO.

Gianandrea  Noseda was making his debut with the NSO this week, and Radu Lapu, looking like a grizzled Brahms, was the pianist.

The program opened with Bedrich Smentana’s Overture to “The Kiss”, a folk opera with rather obvious nationalism, and mannerisms that reminded me of “The Moldau” from high school days. Another bit of similar music occurs in Smentana’s “Festive Symphony”.

Next up, they rearranged the stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 in C Minor, Op. 37.  I got to know this work from a budget recording in 1959, during my junior year in high school. I “read” it as a senior with my piano lessons.

It struck me how different this work is from the Fifth Symphony, or from Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto in the same key (which I think is more interesting). This work has always seemed slow paced and dogmatic. Yet, it has its wonderful moments. The most interesting feat of musical technology may be the enharmonic relationship between the G# of the E major slow movement – the most romantic and original part of the work – and the A-flat, which often fits into the diminished seventh chords in the first movement, and then launches the Rondo finale.  (The original first movement cadenza is massive, and amounts to a second development section.) The work ends in C Major, but there’s no big tune here; it stays workmanlike.  Mozart stayed in minor in his C minor concerto, but in the D minor, #20, remember, he provided a wonderful D Major conclusion, anticipating the romantics years later.

After the brief intermission (and some Facebook experiments on another patron’s cell  luminous iPhone after an informal discussion about how Facebook had done more to change the Middle East than all of Bush’s wars or “decision points”), we enjoyed the treat and point of the evening, Tchaikovksy’s Manfred “Symphony”, Op 58.   I guess Tchaikovsky could have numbered it Symphony #5.  It is in four movements and more or less follows typical sonata and rondo forms, but the same motives reappear as in a fantasy or tone poem. But what’s really striking is these rising scalar gestures, constant scolds (based on the story of Manfred and Byron’s poem which readers can look up), which sometimes turn into themes, or a fugue (as in the finale), but most of all at the (B Minor) climax of the first movement, which hits the listener like a smackdown. It may be the most violent in all of Tchaikovsky’s music, even outdoing the end of the first movement of the Fourth, and the early Francesca.  The audience gasped at this moment. The work as a whole, however, ends serenely, after the organ (which means the backstage seating at Kennedy can’t be used) passage gives us Manfred’s view of the afterlife, or perhaps an “inception”.  I believe I’ve heard a bit of Manfred in the early years of the Smallville series, as if Clark Kent were like Manfred, wrestling with his identity.

The work would attract an audience now because of the impact of Fox’s “Black Swan” film from director Aronofsky; some of Swan Lake, which is a much earlier work, has a similar impact.  But Manfred takes things further, in a few places taking progressive chromaticism almost into atonality, unusual in Tchaikovsky.

The entire work takes about an hour (long for a "tone poem") but some recordings of it in the 50s and 60s took cuts, partly to fit onto one record.  

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