2/14/10

The Transitive Property of Intermission?

PSO concert's formula equals success

Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1/30/2010

Cheesy title notwithstanding, the premise of this review is fascinating.

Intermission at this Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert might as well have been an equal sign in what amounted to a giant musical formula.

(Small quibble, but I think I'd have gone with "equals" sign, but that's just what 1.8 seconds of research suggests is common usage. Also, I asked a mathematician friend of mine.)

Nonetheless: I'm totally intrigued, as I'm interested in the intersection of mathematics and music.

What could this mean?

Figure 1: Which falsely implied that the Pittsburgh Symphony's intermission was a strong statement of support for LGBT equality.

In the first half were two examples of the classical period by Haydn and Mozart, coincidently Violin Concertos No. 2 each performed with ravishing tone by violinist Gil Shaham.

Cheers for the use of the unusual synonym (and near-homonym)-slash-alternate spelling of "coincidentally."

Jeers for...well, a couple of things. There's clearly a comma missing, probably after "No. 2". Either that, or this is a hopelessly garbled paragraph. Er, sentence. Sentence-paragraph.

Moreover, was it really a coincidence that the concerti [sic] were both "number two"s? Like they rolled dice to determine which pieces to perform or something?*

Figure 2: But there's no d5...how am I supposed to choose a Mozart Violin Concerto?**

In the second half was Mahler's manipulation of that classical style in his Symphony No. 4.

Mmm, hmm, mmm-hmm. "That" classical style, eh?

It was almost as if music director Manfred Honeck were a mathematician, carefully balancing the equation to let the audience in on what Mahler was doing.

Ah.

Or rather: What?

I guess the equation is

(Mozart Violin Concerto No. 2) + (Haydn Violin Concerto No. 2) = Mahler Symphony No. 4.

or

2 * ("That" classical style) = Manipulation of "that" classical style.

which implies that

Manipulation = 2

which is, really, no less logical.

Which is to say: Not logical at all. Obviously it's only a metaphor, but it should still work on some level, right? Well, I'm still intrigued, and would like to unpack the metaphor, if possible.

So let's back up.

It was almost as if music director Manfred Honeck were a mathematician, carefully balancing the equation to let the audience in on what Mahler was doing.

First, if it's an equation, it's by definition balanced. Second, the equation metaphor implied that the (or "that") classical style evidenced in the first half is somehow balanced by the Mahler, and, further, that the stylistic balance is achieved...how?***

Nice of him, since the first audiences (and critics) that heard the Fourth Symphony missed the boat pretty badly on this one.

They missed the boat...badly? Were they shooting at it?

Figure 3: Artist's rendering. (Pro tip: You have to lead them a little.)

When Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 4 in Munich in 1901, boos rang out in the hall.

This is true, but his reputation as the heavy-handed director of the Vienna Opera and the fervent, pervasive, and increasingly normalized anti-Semitic sentiment in Austria at the time (the mayor of Vienna was openly anti-Semitic) likely played a role in this reaction (although Mahler officially "converted" to Catholicism as a requirement for his post at the Opera).

Or, you know, they just really hated it.

But today, it's hard to understand how the audience didn't realize why he was using ultra-simple themes and orchestration instead of his typical aggressive and sometimes terrifying music.

Wow. Okay...

The orchestra is smaller, sure (no trombones, fewer than 374 horns), but I don't know if (for example) the sleigh bells in the opening bars count as "ultra-simple" orchestration. Also, the characterization of Mahler's music as "typical[ly] aggressive and sometimes terrifying" strikes me as, er, odd. Mahler's music is bucolic, ironic, witty, parodic, occasionally faux-pastoral, nuanced...but not really aggressive. For me, at least.

But let's follow the argument in the service of understanding the metaphor.

After all, he ends the work with a setting for soprano and orchestra of a poem in which a child sings about what heaven is, or might be like.

After all?

Obviously the music was meant to mirror that....

Obviously? What's all this rhetoric about?

...and if you listened closely to Honeck's interpretation of it on Friday night at Heinz Hall, the PSO also revealed Mahler's constant questioning of this child-like state.

That seems closer to the point.

At times, Mahler is reminding us that even the most innocent picture of heaven is tied to Earth.

Figure 4: Mahler's vision went unrealized until 1990.

Mahler achieved this by playing with style -- specifically that classical style of Mozart and Haydn.

I think that hearing the Fourth's perceived classicism as [ironically?] naive and speaking to the poem in the fourth movement is fair.

Surely, though, the metaphorical equation doesn't come down to

Classicism (Mozart, Haydn) = Referential, throwback-y-sort-of Classicism (Mahler's 4th)

...does it? There's more, right? Because that's pretty thin.

It is extremely hard to separate a style of music from the time in which it arose.

Unless we lived in some fantastic, unimaginable, futuristic age where basically any music that was ever recorded by anyone, anywhere was available at our fingertips. That'd be crazy.

If Beyonce were to release a new song in the style of big band jazz or Bruce Springsteen a new Elvis-like rock-n-roll tune, we would see them as throwbacks or tributes, not new explorations.

Maybe. Or as ironic. Or referential, or reverent/irreverent. Or parodic, or evocative--or crossover. Or deliberately and pointedly anachronistic. Or shamelessly commercial. Or lots of things, really, besides throwbacks or tributes. Or this:

Figure 5: Nice fucking font. Er, fonts.

Mahler was counting on this in the Fourth. He expected that by using music from an earlier style that was already 100 years past would evoke a simpler time, much in the way folk music is used today.

[Sentence error 506: missing object. Please fire editor.]

So, in this regard, one can see how early audiences had trouble understanding it.

No, I can't see that. You just laid out a pretty simple (if speculative) argument that it's easy to understand. Besides, you just wrote this a few paragraphs ago:

But today, it's hard to understand how the audience didn't realize why he was using ultra-simple themes and orchestration instead of his typical aggressive and sometimes terrifying music.

Or I guess you were ironically disproving your own assertion? How...Mahlerian.

Honeck's reading succeeded because he treated the galant style of the work sincerely and then upset it by manipulating dynamics.

That' a pretty nice assessment, nuanced and thoughtful. (I'd probably argue that "galant" is not equivalent to "classical" in current musicological parlance. (Perhaps we should check with some musicologists?))****

He kept the work from turning sappy or saccharine. This meant pulling back on the strings even more than he is sometimes wont to do, and it also meant emphasizing the solo elements of the symphony.

Okay, great. I'm losing the thread here, though. Something about an equation?

Principal after principal stepped up with rich and colorful solos, from William Caballero's sometimes radiant, sometimes protesting horn to Michael Rusinek's alternately full-bodied and wailing clarinet to Andres Cardenes' scordatura violin (tuned up a tone).

Scordatura violin doesn't seem like "ultra-simple orchestration" either. Just sayin'.

The latter was a tour-de-force for the concertmaster as he constantly switched violins in the second movement to assume the character of the Devil.

Uh, yeah. No. The character is supposed to be Freund Hein, a mythological German character closer to Death than the Devil, a skeleton who leads a Totentanz and plays the fiddle.

Figure 6: Ein Totentanz. Death is indeed a wily one, as the fiddle he's playing appears to be some sort of clarinet.
Figure 7: Austrian Melodic Death/Thrash Metal band Freund Hein.

Oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida, timpanist Christopher Allen, trumpeter George Vosburgh and the entire cell and bass sections also played crucial roles. Unfortunately, the soprano who sang the song "Life in Heaven" in the finale did not follow suit. Sunhae Im didn't muster the volume and didn't enunciate well. While this must be treated in a child-like manner, the part must be heard.

Again, those seem like valid observations, praises, and criticisms. So what's with the goddamn math metaphor?

Shaham, of course, didn't exist just to set up the Mahler.

I guess he'd be glad to know that.

That was a nice byproduct of his exquisite performance of the two concertos.

Shaham's performances in the first half helped set up the Mahler? Now we're getting somewhere. Right? Equation metaphor? Something?

His reading of Mozart's concerto was inspiring, but the surprise for me was the Haydn, whose unhurried treatment of the exquisite but deliberate middle movement was like watching some spectacular HDTV sports highlight in slow motion.

Either Haydn's treatment of his own middle movement was...like watching sports, or there's a pretty preposterous pronoun problem. Honestly, I'm not sure which is worse. But, hey, at least we're getting to the...

Shaham was far less animated on stage than his last appearance and took the pose of someone humbled by the music. His ability to play legato even in the quickest of runs (especially in his encore, the Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3) infused this music with winning flair.

Okay, but...

Problem solved: both sides of this equation were equally masterful in the hands of these artists.

That's it? Everything was super? After all that?

Oh, come on! That's a fucking cop out.

Figure 8: Maxwell's Equations, or: Not A Fucking Cop Out


* Of course, "number two" also has the common, if vulgar, connotation of "shit."

** 1d10/2, obviously.

***Still further, if it's an equation it has to hold that the program would be transitive as well as reflexive (that is, it could have worked in reverse order (since both halves are (by definition) equal)), but that's not what's implied here.

****And, yes, I like nested parentheses.

7 comments:

Danny Liss said...

I don't think this is the same Mahler 4 that I'm familiar with.

Coincidently, I went to a performance of a Mahler 4, although it may have been a different symphony. The Mahler 4 I went to is known for its rustic, "naive" quality, not any neo-classicism.

Here are two reviews of the concert I went to that have a better assessment of its uniqueness in the Mahler cycle:

http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2010/02/13/renee_fleming_and_bso_forge_pieces_into_a_whole/

http://classical-scene.com/2010/02/12/bso-best-night-in-56-years/

The blogger has much more room to handle the piece in depth, but someone the newspaper critic still manages to fit something coherent about the program in the limited space.

Gustav said...

...Haydn, whose unhurried treatment of the exquisite but deliberate middle movement...

Or as you so rightly put it, SA, "Haydn's treatment of his own middle movement", is perhaps the single best example of how much most critics just don't understand how music is actually written. The music critic's understanding of how music is written is a bit like a dog trying to explain what happens to their owner every day when mysteriously disappear for 8 hours.

Sator Arepo said...

I'm pretty sure the intent was "Shaham's treatment..." but it got garbled. This *should* be a mistake caught by an editor. Oh, well!

Sator Arepo said...

Danny-

Thanks for the links. Perhaps this was actually about...Mahler's 4th Violin Concerto?

Gustav said...

I suppose, SA. It's more fun as written, though.

Also, Mahler 4th Violin Concerto is so awesome I thank Jebus daily for it's existence.

Danny Liss said...

Oh, by the way, d10/2. I hope you don't call yourself a nerd!

Sator Arepo said...

What? Why not? Would you roll percentile dice?