Beethoven 6 at the CSO

Programcso color

  • Smetana The Moldau, No. 2 from Ma vlast
  • Takemitsu riverrun
  • Villa-Lobos Amazonas
  • Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

An Evening to Second-Act at the CSO

I sorely wish that Juanjo Mena, Thursday evenings’ promising guest conductor at the CSO, had better musical taste. Beethoven’s ever-delightful Symphony No.6, the capstone of last night’s program, is sure to draw at least moderate attendance, and Mena’s rendition was certainly very respectable; but two of the three shorter pieces that occupied the first half the of last nights’  program were execrable in the extreme. It is, indeed, questionable whether anyone still had a heart left for Beethoven after such an ordeal.  I think that I had half a heart.

Juanjo Mena

Mena opened the program with the charmingly effervescent, if a bit one-dimensional tone-poem on “The Moldau” (1874) from Bedrich Smetana’s collection of 6 such poems Ma vlast. Apart from the very memorable central melody, and the occasional charm of bubbling flutes, the piece is essentially second-rate ballet music, though not in fact written for ballet. By the end it all seemed rather rambunctious, as if the final reckoning with whatever evil-sorcerer would have been the villain of Smetana’s ballet, had it been written as such, was as just a bit too cheap, and melodramatic.  One did get an inkling, however, that the CSO strings were a good deal more attentive than usual, which bodes well for Mena in more substantial repertoire.

But “the Moldau” was quite heavenly compared with some of what was to come. Toru Takemitsu’s riverrun (1985), the title taken from the first and last sentences of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, is at best profoundly boring, and, at worst, actually grating. The piece has very little, if any, formal coherence. There is nothing really to do, as a listener, but try to allow oneself to be taken in by the modernist daze, of this avant-garde, vaguely Japanese, wandering nothing of piece. It was indeed a great waste of the distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin who, by the way, is the only person who has ever dared play this piece with the CSO. At times, Serkin might as well have knocked his elbow on the piano-keys, for all I could tell from the sound he produced. At less painful moments, Takemitsu’s work struck one as something like the deeply sinister film-underscoring to one of the many Eastern peregrinations of James Bond. As music for the concert stage, however, it is truly vile.

One might have thought it impossible to go downhill after this, but Hector Villa-Lobos Amazonas did nearly that. The  Brazilian Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) describes this piece, as quoted in the program notes, as, “music of nature, alongside which Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and [Wagner’s] Siegfried…are no more than random samples of nature, to be exhibited in store windows”. Perhaps this is because no one would ever dare see or hear anything that could be vaguely described by Amazonas (1917), anywhere near them, let alone in a store window. Besides having almost nothing of formal clarity, Villa-Lobos’s Amazonas is fraught with bizarrely discordant wind combinations with string accompaniment, which at times seem perfectly calculated to make the shrillest sounds possible. Also providing much of the accompaniment, with some solo passages, was the demonic sounding violinophone, which sounds like a violin playing nothing but the worst sounding harmonics. If Villa-Lobos took Stravinsky as a guide, it would be well to point out that this piece has nothing of the novel-charm to be found in some of the orchestration in The Rite of Spring, for instance, and instead seems deftly calculated to produce the worst combinations of instrumental-timbres possible. I did not applaud this piece, and saw many in the audience around me who did not applaud either.

Nevertheless, Mena’s rendition of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was reasonably successful. The tempo was, assuredly, a great deal slower that one will normally hear; but this allowed Mena to develop the core of the melodic lines to elicit a much fuller sound than one normally gets from the CSO strings. One certainly might have liked Mena to add a little drama with a few accelerandi, at certain points, something Furtwangler does masterfully in his Berlin Philharmonic recording which, incidentally, are one of the only versions I have heard that take as slow an initial tempo as Mena does here. In the end, however, it seemed that Mena had just set the metronome at certain level, and was determined not to waver from it. The CSO’s sound certainly benefited from the size of its string section, a marked break from modern convention; but doubling of the winds, in addition would have maintained a better balance. Still, Mena can certainly be very musical at times, and I would not hesitate to say that this concert would have been very much worth-while had I only remembered to arrive after the intermission.    

Not Recommended.

 Gabriel Kalcheim

Date Reviewed: May 16, 2012

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