Virgil Thomson used to say that the French played Brahms better than the Germans, and maybe the Austrians play Americans better than Americans. This seemed to be the case when the brilliant American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who has been Europe-based since 1980, led his band, the Bruckner Orchester Linz, in performances of three three- movement works by three celebrated American composers on the last stop of its third US tour at Stanford’s handsome Bing Concert Hall. What made the Austrians sound American? Well the way they played our music with its devices which Thomson defined as the non accelerating crescendo and “a steady ground rhythm of equalized eighth notes (expressed or not)”, which still exist even in our brave new globalist world where distinctions are seen as divisive.
But there was nothing divisive in these utterly distinct yet complementary pieces, and there was drama as the ninety plus BOL entered single file stage right and took their places smack dab in the center of the hall with their listeners all around which told them this wasn’t going to be business as usual. And how could it be when Davies led conductor Maurice Peress’ symphonic version of Black, Brown, and Beige by that great force of nature African-American composer-pianist-bandleader Duke Ellington (1899-1974) which he and his orchestra premiered in the hallowed precincts of New York’s Carnegie Hall on 23 January 1943, to a predictably divided press which apparently didn’t want Duke to break free from the tyranny of the three-minute commercial song into something more ambitious. Music is just music so what’s the deal? Either it connects or it doesn’t, and this performance connected with pungent solos — the percussionist who played the drum kit was just one of many — buoyed by sweet and sassy strings. Who knew that the Linzers could swing but they did. This “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro ” was the first of Ellington’s many suites which set new standards in jazz composition in terms of color, depth, and emotional expressivity.
The music of Samuel Barber (1910-1981), though classically constrained, was always expressive. His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1939-40), which he wrote for the Russian-born Iso ( Isaac ) Briselli, looks to have been a three-way drama between Barber, Briselli, and his patron, Fels over its content and form, especially the last movement’s “moto perpetuo”, which the Briselli cadre felt came out of left field. But Barber stuck to his guns and American violinist Albert Spaulding (1888-1953)premiered it in 1941 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, It’s now seen as a repertory work but doesn’t seem to show up much on orchestra programs, and that’s a shame because it’s beautiful and feels entirely heartfelt, pehaps because Barber started to write it in Europe when he was forced to come back to the US at the advent of World War II. His father was also ill and Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti (1911-2007), whom Barber had met in 1928 when they were both students at Philly’s Curtis Institute, and who subsequently became his life partner, was likely very much on his mind. Who knows? But the feeling of one person speaking directly to another is undeniable which the chamber symphony-sized forces here drove home in no uncertain terms. First oboe Franz Scherzer’s solo at the beginning of the second movement “andante ” was loving and exquisitely phrased. And the American violinist Robert McDuffie, who’s known for his superlative tone, caught the work’s melancholic and rhapsodic character with precision and point on his immaculately lacquered 1755 Guarnerius del Jesu, his sound effortlessly balanced with the orchestra which looked enormously moved under Davies’ exacting yet generous gestures.
But the most anticipated work on the program had to be the Bay Area premiere of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11 ( 2016), which Davies, who has commissioned all of his symphonies, save No.7, and the BOL premiered at Carnegie on 31 January 2017, which also happens to have been Glass’ eightieth birthday. Having been a fan of his work since 1983, and a writer on it since 1986, I was more than a little interested in hearing what it sounded like. Plus — the funny thing isn’t that Glass’ music always sounds the same, but that it’s enormously varied. He had carte blanche in terms of number of players available for No. 11 because the BOL, unlike US orchestras, is state-supported, and it continues and solidifies Glass’ discoveries in No. 8 (2005): No. 9 (2010-11): and No.10 (2012). No. 8 explores the myriad qualities of rhythm, color, and oblique harmonic motion, No. 9 is about hammered sonorities and colors moving continuously forward at different rates, and No. 10 is about the percussive nature of volume and weight anchored and unmoored by rhythm. But the content here was different, or as Glass said in a program note — “structurally it’s fairly free “.and little of recent musical strategies are present — no Classical or Baroque forms at all , no variations or passacaglias. Nor will modernist strategies ( mathematical or structural ) be found.” which had the paradoxical effect of making it more easily heard yet harder to grasp.
Different orchestral choirs are exploited separately, in space, as in a passage for strings, in similar motion in movement 1, which were heard playing a modal raga-like figure alone as the other choirs listened, then responded, which resembled Glass’ highly contrapuntal strings only Symphony No. 3 (1994). Musical space both “open”, or porous, or “closed “, or dense, were big concerns as in Ives and Henry Brant, and the different kinds of musics here were exploited for their individual sonorous character which made me think of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, during the performance, and afterwards of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. There were also slight changes in seating deployment, with the four French horns, in two rows, parked next to the eight double basses, for purposes of clarity and blending. The frequent rapid cross-cutting between these sonorous elements felt entirely logical, though it was hard to put your finger as to why. It wasn’t exactly poly-stylistic, but that might be as good a description as any. Rhythm was a big deal of course, but Glass seemed more focussed here on harmonic motion than in his groundbreaking Philip Glass Ensemble piece Music in 12 Parts (1971-74), which summed up his approach to that issue there. The variety of sounds and sound colors he’s worked into his musics since then were both referred to and embedded here. And It was thrilling to see Davies turn his score back to the completely re-written dal segno repeat at the end, which the orchestra nailed like the PGE in glorious full tilt, and as the last note died the audience jumped up and gave it a four minute standing ovation. “What’s the best kind of criticism?” someone once asked Thomson. ” Loud and continued applause,” which was fully deserved here. And I hate to say it — but this was the best and most beautiful orchestral playing I’ve ever heard. Period.
No.11 will be recorded by the BOL in June ’17 in Linz,; its June Turkish premiere will be in Istanbul after Istanbul performance and www.qso.com. au www.muzik.iksv.org.
END C 2017 MICHAEL MCDONAGH