Friday, January 28, 2011

Nielsen rating

So, two orchestras in two days, both at Lincoln Center - the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer, and the New York Phil under Alan Gilbert. The former program was Haydn and Stravinsky, the latter Beethoven, Sibelius and Nielsen. Why was the former so much more fun?

Perhaps it's because Fischer's a marvelous showman. The concert started with the orchestra - missing its first violins - beginning Stravinsky's "Scherzo à la Russe." Fischer materialized from somewhere, encouraging the audience to clap along. (Really? Really!) Then violinists flowed in from both sides, taking up positions on risers at either corner of the front of the stage, standing, like serenading soloists, arriving in place just in time for their part to come on. We'd stopped clapping by then, but the circle was complete, everyone in the hall was engaged. For the immediately following "Tango," two of the second violins tussled over an instrument and began to dance. Then Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony (no. 92), suddenly serious but with that characteristic twinkle in Papa Haydn's eye: Fischer milked the playful, profound pauses. After the interval, Haydn's C-major cello concerto, then the suite from "The Firebird," a journey through foreboding and enchantment to magic and public celebration. My heart's still racing with joy.

I bought my (ridiculously cheap) ticket for this concert because of the "Firebird," and because my father has taught me to love Haydn (and because my Japanese friend had told me that Fischer was all the rage in Japan), but by the time the concert rolled around there was an additional impetus. Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini had completed his semi-serious compiling of a list of the top ten classical composers, and while Stravinsky was included, Haydn had been somewhat guiltily dropped. He couldn't after all include all four of the Viennese, Tommasini explained. And besides, Haydn was included after all through his influence on Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Hmmm.

Beethoven was the only one of the New York Philharmonic concert's composers to make Tommasini's list (we heard a rather bombastic interpretation of the eighth symphony), but a different kind of promotion was going on. Alan Gilbert spent time with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra before taking up the baton here in his hometown, and is a great advocate for Scandinavian music. In particular, we learned from the program, he thinks Carl Nielsen's symphonies deserve to be better known, indeed to be staples. He's "an even greater symphonist than Sibelius," we read in the program, "and that's really saying something!" And Sibelius, we learned, only entered the playlist a few decades ago because of one of Gilbert's predecessor Philharmonic Music Directors, Leonard Bernstein. In the next few years, Gilbert intends to introduce all of Nielsen's symphonies to New York.

I bought my (ridiculously cheap) ticket for this concert because the Nielsen symphony on the program was the second, "The Four Temperaments." Once upon a time, I wrote a whole article on the tradition of the temperaments, and it still has a special place in my heart. I knew Nielsen's symphony from CDs, but had never heard it performed. It's a doozy! Some interesting thematic development happens as each movement (named after a humor: Allegro collerico, Allegro comodo e flemmatico, Andante malincolico, Allegro sanguineo—Marziale) finds and then integrates a contrary mood, just as the humors were thought to do. In fact, the theory of the temperaments has affinities with the four-movement symphony, with its contrasting but calibrated movements, and distinct but interrelated themes.

Should Nielsen displace one of Tommasini's other two post-romantic composers (Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók) in the list? Probably not. But the world wouldn't end if we replaced the occasional Beethoven symphony with one of his. Or with one by Beethoven's teacher, Haydn.

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