Fisher, Berg and Mahler
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Friday 11 August 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Edo de Waart, conductor
Karen Gomyo, violin
Rainphase – Salina Fisher (b. 1993)
Violin Concerto – Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Symphony No. 1 in D major – Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
The short story (tldr):
Rainphase by Salina Fisher was a remarkably evocative, calm and meditative work – a gesture of rain as a concept. Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, despite the atonal nature of the work was passionate and tender – an audible embodiment of the grief process. Karen Gomyo was astounding. She had a fiery, almost volcanic demeanour. Her tone was gorgeous and gutsy, perfectly in tune and extremely expressive. And Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.1: many moods, shades of emotions and timbral colour – spine tingling stuff.
The long story:
Rainphase by Salina Fisher was a evocative work – intriguing and ethereal, almost meditative. It was a gesture of rain as a concept: its shape; its sound; its splash and splatter on striking objects. Salina encouraged the instruments to explore extended playing techniques: col legno of the violins; circular bow strokes from the double basses; finger-tappings of the keys for the woodwind; flutes and brass blowing over the mouthpiece imitating zephyrs and wind gusts; tympani glissandos and bowed percussions instruments; unusual percussion instruments like the appropriately named Waterphone. And I thought I saw a bowed tympani? Consequently, Salina used the orchestra as one instruments with 80 timbral facets. The work was ‘programmatic’ in a way – a Wellington storm passing over the city – but it was subtle and enigmatic, a soundworld readily identifiable but sophisticated too. Remarkable.
Berg’s Violin Concerto was inspired by the death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma and her second husband Walter Gropius. Berg was a close friend of Alma and Manon, and he subtitled his concerto ‘to the memory of an angel‘. I have some acquaintance of this work from my time as a music teacher¹. Often serial or the dodecaphonic music with its reliance on a tone row, rather than the usual modes or scales, are characterised by descriptions of cerebral, unemotional, dry or academic music – ‘head’ music as opposed to ‘heart’ music. Berg’s Violin Concerto is not like that!
The concerto was almost like an audible embodiment of the grief process: denial and isolation; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance. The two movement work immediately sets out the tone row by several arpeggiated chords by the woodwind and the solo violin. In fact the orchestral upper strings were silent for three or four minutes. Usually the form of a concerto contrasts the orchestra timbre with the solo instrument, most often by alternating melodic or rhythmic themes. With Berg’s concerto, the contrast was constant and simultaneous and, at first, the solo violin and the orchestra didn’t seem to relate to each other at all. The second section was tempestuous, passionate, with the solo violin furiously accenting, crossing strings, plucking open string while bowing, a controlled frenzy! It was almost like an accompanied candeza. The tempo slowed and we heard a elegant bassoon solo from Robert Weeks. The clarinets rendered an apt Bach Chorale (‘Es ist genung‘ – ‘It is enough‘) – delicately dissonant and detuned – and the violin solo provided an ornamented counter melody. The musical gap between the soloist and the orchestra was diminished and the mood was more lyrical and tender. The arpeggiated triad returned and the violin solo ascending to the heavens with a suspended note way up in her high register – transcendent. It didn’t detract me from my appreciation of the piece, but I thought that the orchestra – the woodwind and brass – was one or two notches too loud.
Karen Gomyo was astounding. She had a fiery, almost volcanic demeanour – passionate and authoritative – a force of nature. Her tone was gorgeous and gutsy, perfectly in tune and extremely expressive. Despite the audience’s tumultuous applause she didn’t provide encore – thankfully for my part. Anything other piece would be an anticlimax from a magnificent performance.
Mahler’s First Symphony makes use of a big orchestra – four of every woodwind, eight horns and two tympani players. He was 25 when he wrote this piece but he revised the piece several times. This performance was the resultant score after 10 years of renovation. The programme listed it as a 53 minute work, but it didn’t seem like that, with its many moods, shades of emotions and timbral colour. The strings were particularly splendid – swelling and sweeping, delicate and forceful, tender or ardent.
The first movement was inspired by Beethoven – the beginning of the 9th symphony and the flute bird calls and clarinet cuckoo calls from the 6th symphony, Pastorale, almost ad nauseam! The interval of a fourth was prevalent.
The second movement was a Ländler, a rustic dance. It was bucolic and inurbane, unsophisticated, and very enjoyable. I am sure it was marked pesante – in my imagination I conceive of that direction as a peasant stomping with gumboots! The form was an ABA structure. At one point, the eight horns flipped their horns on level with their cheeks to mute them – quite impressive!
The third movement, a funeral march, based on a song of a distorted nursery rhyme, Frère Jacques. The tympani provided a two note monotonous rhythm – again, a 4th – and, in turn, the theme was played by a solo double bass, solo bassoon, two cellos, and the tuba. Then a change of mood – almost like Klezmer, the jazzy and modal traditional secular music of Ashkenazi and Hasidic Jews. (Maybe Jerry Bock, composer of Fiddler on the Roof, studied this symphony?)
Almost without a break, Edo de Waart hurried to the final movement. Mahler described the opening of the four movement as ‘simply the cry of a wounded heart.’ The whole orchestra engaged with a despairing, anguished howl. The dynamics were pushed to extremes. The two tympanists reinforced each other with accented notes and rolls – given they were on opposite wings of the stage it was a stereo effect. The second theme emerged – the violin sung a desolate aria with the pulsing horn accompaniment. Eventfully the bird calls from the first movement reechoed. The coda was magnificent – a change of key, a brass fanfare, and the orchestra presented a triumphant, heroic end. The eight horns stood up, the woodwinds raised their instruments up exultingly, and I swear that Lenny Sakofsky leapt up twenty centimetres to clash his cymbals! Spine tingling stuff.
1: The revision of the music curriculum for New Zealand schools meant that we could prescribe any sort of pieces with certain guidelines, rather than fixed set works. I had a class of 15 year 12 and 13 music students one year and I wanted to have a piece that NO ONE had ever heard before. I settled on the Berg Violin Concerto. I sat them down and insisted that they should only listen: no handouts, no pens or pencils, no talking. (These days I would have to say no laptops, iPad or mobile phones too!) We heard the whole thing without any interruption. I said: “What do you think about that?” and 14 said they hated it and one student said they didn’t mind it. For two weeks we studied the piece – the score, the tone row, the detuned Bach chorale, the biography and the meaning …. After that, I said to them, listen again – no handout, no pens, no talking. Result: One still didn’t like it – 14 loved it! A teachable moment.