The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Guest conductor James Gaffigan, presented a program on February 23 of:
Haydn- Sinfonia from “The Desert Island”
Ades- Violin Concerto, Op. 23 “Concentric Paths”
Wagner- Prelude to Act I of “Lohengrin”
Debussy- La Mer, Three Symphonic Sketches.
Leila Josefowicz was the soloist in the Ades.
The not-very-often heard Haydn piece was a clever way to begin the concert. It is an attention grabbing piece, particularly regarding the composers use of the bass line to heighten drama. Maestro Gaffigan underscored the contra-basses with the bassoon placed directly in front of them. I thought that was a nice touch to enhance the low growl. I was curious to learn more about the opera for which this piece serves as an introduction. There was not much in the ASO program guide, I part, because there is not a lot to say about it, judging from the availability of information on the internet. I did find this synopsis on Wikipedia:
Using the crudest of tools, Costanza is on the verge of completing an inscription on a rock next to her cave: "Abandoned by the traitor Gernando, Constanza finished her days on these strange shores. Friendly traveler, unless you be a tiger, either avenge or pity…" Her young sister Silvia enters, rejoicing that a lost pet deer has returned, and asks why Costanza is unhappy, being on such a pleasant island far from the world wicked men she has often described, but cannot cheer her. Silvia, alone, watches a ship arrive and runs to ask her sister what monster swims and flies at the same time. Her way is blocked by Gernando and his friend Enrico, and she hides, not being able to overhear their conversation. Both had been captives of pirates, Gernando seized on this very beach while his wife was recovering from seasickness. They split up to search the island, Enrico first singing of his unending gratitude to his friend for helping his escape. Silvia has managed to get a good look at him, too kind-looking to be a man, but not wearing a skirt either. She marvels as well at a new kind of fear that causes gladness: yet more questions for Constanza.
Gernando discovers the inscription and believes Constanza dead. He declares his intention to end his days on the island to Enrico; the latter decides he must be carried off by force for his own good, and instructs two sailors to lay an ambush by a stream. He comes upon Silvia who, learning he is a man after all, pleads for her life, but he wins her trust and they part to fetch the other couple. Silvia remains long enough to sing an aria putting a name to her new emotion. When she leaves, Constanza arrives, singing of the slowness of time. When Gernando appears she faints and he hurries to fetch water from the stream. Enrico enters and explains all to her; Silvia arrives with Gernando, having explained everything to the sailors after they had seized him. Enrico proposes to Silvia and the work closes with a quartet-rondo with concertante writing for solo violin and cello.
Well, that seems a bit silly! But the Sinfonia itself had a bit more edge to it that I normally associate with Haydn, so it was good to hear another side of this important composer.
The Ades Violin concerto was composed in 2005. It is in three movements, with the second being longer than the other two combined. This music has been described as a masterpiece of modern composition and deserving of great respect. One person (Barnaby Thieme) who reviewed the premiere recording of the work says, “Concentric Paths is a revelation, the most spell-binding work I've heard to date by one of the great talents in music today.” I wish I could be so enthusiastic. Maestro Gaffigan and Ms. Josefowicz gave a brief introduction to the work from the stage. They assured us that the music was easily accessible and did not require repeated hearings to appreciate its virtues. It is a great move to attempt to set our expectations. Mr. Gaffigan also noted that Ms. Josefowicz had committed this very difficult work to memory. Maybe I must hear it again, and again, and again to appreciate it. After all, it did take me nearly 50 years to appreciate Mahler! I do like contemporary works, and have a few favorite contemporary composers, to wit, Glass, Adams, Part, Golijov, but their music has strong structure, and dare I say it, melody. Even the minimalists provide melody, even if it’s rapid and repetitive. I could not discern the structure of this violin concerto, and certainly not any melody- although I do not believe that melody is the sine qua non of good music. It is simply one component and may be less important given other strengths in a composition. I guess I didn’t hear the other strengths. But the ASO audience gave a standing ovation to the piece. I must have missed something. Oh, wait. They give an SO to everything. But Ms. Josefowicz does deserve recognition for memorizing the music.
The last I heard her, she was playing the electric violin as soloist in Adam’s” Dharma at Big Sur.“ I will give her props for supporting new music. She was playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and I remember not liking the first movement because the sound of the violin was smothered in the sound of the PSO, but the second movement got back to Adam’s minimalist roots and the hypnotic structure of the music finally worked.
The Lohengrin was magnificent, especially for the strings. Mr. Gaffigan kept everything under control and let the passion rise to the surface. Just before the start of the work, a cell phone went off. Mr. Gaffigan turned to face the audience, and rather than discipline, he said something to the effect that it was Wagner calling asking him not to play the music too fast. The point was well taken. But for all of its standing ovations, the ASO audience too frequently has cell phone mishaps.
The Debussy is an orchestral stunner. There are few composers who really know how to paint a musical picture as well as Debussy, even though that whole musical picture thing is a bit overworked. But, it would be hard to believe that even the uninitiated in classical music would not hear this as a work about water, and indeed, a lot of water. The last movement, titled “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” (a truly apt description) allows the full orchestra to show its mettle, which the ASO did quite admirably. It was a rich and skilled performance.
Mr. Gaffigan was recently appointed as Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, and Principal Guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. He is a very talented and it is too bad that he couldn’t have taken a prestigious position in the US. I have a new found love for quoting bios of guest artists, so from the ASO program notes: “American conductor James Gaffigan is praised for the precision and natural ease of his conducting and the illuminating insights of his musicianship. “ Wow, and I just said he was talented. I must work on my adjectives.