Friday, March 5, 2010

A final testament, or something

By a lucky coincidence, I was able to arrange my schedule so that I could attend Wednesday's premiere of the new Fifth Symphony by the late Jacques Hétu. The Toronto Symphony has played a good bit of Hétu in recent years - I think in particular of a memorable performance of his Organ Concerto in 2008, coupled with Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie. Expectations, therefore, were suitably high - the last major work of an important Canadian composer, performed by an orchestra and conductor noted for their advocacy of his music.

First, though, came The Last Round by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose music has been featured throughout the TSO's New Creations Festival, followed by La Plus Forte, a one-woman opera by Irish composer Gerald Barry.

Golijov is not normally a composer I'm wild about. His song cycle Ayre, for example, recorded by Dawn Upshaw on a disc with Berio's wonderful Folk Songs, stuck me as rather tepid and unmemorable. I admit that my knowledge of his music is superficial at best, and that my judgment is probably clouded by my instinctive mistrust of musical fashions. (I still haven't come around to Eric Whitacre, for example.) But composers can't choose their fans, and I shouldn't judge Golijov because he currently has the misfortune to be popular. The Last Round - for string orchestra, a memorial to the late Astor Piazzola - is a spectacular piece, expertly paced and impressive in its use of the instrumental forces. (The TSO performance split the orchestra in half across the stage, a double-orchestral layout familiar from any number of well-known string works; motives seemed to ricochet from one side of the stage to the other.) The first section treats the Piazzolan tango in an unconventional manner, compressing and decompressing the characteristic rhythms and motives of the style; the second is a haunting elegy, its melancholy (ironically) almost Waltonian. I am delighted to have been wrong about Golijov, and look forward to giving his previous work another try.

Gerald Barry's piece seemed to attract a certain amount of controversy. The Toronto Star review described the work as "musically dreary and repetitive," and conversations at intermission and after the performance revealed that others felt the same way. A recurring complaint was that the music simply repeated the same phrases and motives rather than representing the different moods of the text. From my perspective, this rather misses the mark; the libretto, based on a play by Strindberg, depends for its power precisely on the banality of two women's everyday conversation - during the course of which it becomes apparent that Miss Y is "the other woman" in Mrs. X's marriage. For this listener, Barry's extremely parsimonious score, with unison or two-part textures in the orchestral accompaniment, terraced dynamics, and unsentimental orchestration, created a sense of gradually mounting unease. All commenters were unanimous in commending soprano Barbara Hannigan, one of the great modern interpreters of contemporary music; she sang the role flawlessly from memory and breathed real life into a role that, in the hands of a less expert singer, would have fallen quite flat.

Jacques Hétu's new symphony was a departure from his usual style: an extended (forty-five-minute) choral-orchestral work. Its four movements depict events in French history: the first depicts the uneasy peace of the 1930s, the second the German invasion, and the third the Occupation. The fourth and longest movement is an extended choral setting of Paul Éluard's poem "Liberté," a nationalistic celebration of the joys of freedom ("And by the power of a word / I begin my life again / I was born to know you / To name you / Liberty").

For someone familiar with Hétu's previous work, this may seem odd; for me, Hétu's work has always symbolized concision, polish, and craftsmanship, but the layout of this symphony suggests monumentality, sweep, and discursiveness. A symphony with such a layout cannot help ringing all the Beethoven's Ninth alarm bells: a stage-setting opening, a rather vicious scherzo, an elegaic slow movement, and a choral-orchestral finale that resolves the tensions of the previous movements into some sort of suitably nonspecific metaphysical message. There's even a precedent for Beethoven's Ninth being turned into an Ode to Liberty - Leonard Bernstein reworked Schiller's "An die Freude" into "An die Freiheit" for a 1989 performance at the foot of the Berlin Wall. We've heard all of this before: why go through it again? And why Jacques Hétu, of all people, for the task?

There's a part of me that regards the entire Beethoven's-Ninth symphonic trajectory as inherently flawed. The symphony can be a tremendously powerful genre, and can pack a real emotional punch, but it doesn't need to be a Life-Changing Metaphysical Experience. Since Beethoven, dozens of otherwise sensible composers have struggled under the presumption that the symphony must have all-encompassing philosophical pretensions: witness Mahler's silly comment that a symphony "must contain the world" or the remark of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin that "Everything will pass, and the world will perish, but the Ninth Symphony will remain." But isn't this placing more weight on the symphony than it can bear - or than any human creation can bear? And does even Beethoven succeed at the task? Slavoj Žižek doesn't think so:

The only radical solution is to shift the whole perspective and to render problematic the very first part of the fourth movement: things do not really go wrong only at bar 331, with the entrance of the marcia Turca, they go wrong from the very start - one should accept that there is something of an insipid sham in the Ode, so that the chaos that enters after bar 331 is a kind of "return of the repressed," a symptom of what was wrong from the very beginning. . . Many of today's listeners cannot but be struck by the empty pompous character and pretentiousness of the Ode, by its somewhat ridiculous solemnity - recall what we see if we watch its performance on television: fat, self-satisfied, well-dressed singers with bulging veins, making a great effort, accompanied by ridiculous waving of hands, to get their sublime message across as loudly as possible . . . What if we displace the entire perspective and perceive the marcia as a return to everyday normality that cuts short the display of preposterous portentousness and brings us back to earth, as if it were saying "You want to celebrate the brotherhood of man? Here it is, then, real humanity. . ."?
In Defense of Lost Causes, 272-3, italics in original.

This analysis, like everything Žižek writes, is extremely controversial, but it's not difficult to see his basic point. If not in the Ninth itself, then certainly in its later followers, the capacity of the symphony to carry meaning is pushed to its breaking point and beyond. By the twentieth century, this quality is expected and becomes a formal feature in its own right: Havergal Brian's "Gothic" Symphony, the absolute summit of symphonic gigantism, is an enigmatic mass of discontinuities, its various themes so distinct from each other that they can never be meaningfully reconciled. This symphonic archetype has collapsed under its own weight, deconstructed from every possible ideological perspective and revealed for what it is: an attempt at a substitute for religious faith.

Yet even the most overdone archetype can be brought to new life by a brilliant artist with a new angle, and Hétu manages to avoid the most obvious pitfalls. In particular, the specificity of his symphonic programme saves him from destruction: he's not gesturing vaguely at the Great Ontological Something Or Other, but telling the story of a particular people at a particular historical juncture. And whatever Hétu writes will, at the very least, be well written: his musical ideas may not always be at the same high level, but he knows how to make the best of them.

The first notes of the new symphony (a horn solo, if you're wondering) were instantly recognizable as Hétu's work; a typically plangent melody accompanied in his characteristically French way. The second movement, a vicious scherzo representing the German invasion, was less characteristic. Hétu's fast movements are usually effervescent and cheerful; this was positively violent. A similar surprise awaited in the third movement: Hétu slow movements are usually pensive and emotionally intense, but this portrait of the Occupation was full of portentous timpani beats and wailing violins. One must commend the composer for expanding his emotional range so late in his career, but as the movement progressed a certain conventionality in expression revealed itself. Hétu is simply not cut out for violence or portentousness, and these movements succeeded best when the composer allowed himself to relax.

The final movement, setting a long stretch of poetry, was by necessity the most discursive. Again here the musical inspiration seemed to ebb and flow: I thought that the section nearest the end, dealing with such uplifting images as "the walls of my ennui," lost focus a bit. But the repeated refrain of the poem ("J’écris ton nom"), harmonized slightly differently each time, kept the music on track, and the final peroration seemed fully logical and inevitable.

Is this a Great Masterpiece that will edge Mahler's symphonies out of the repertoire? No. It has some formal problems, and seems to show Hétu's reach exceeding his grasp. But it's beautifully written, and its premiere was a fitting tribute to such a great composer. If he's ultimately remembered for his less ambitious earlier symphonies and concerti, the Fifth is still worth a listen; expect it to be available on the Canadian Music Centre website once the performance has been broadcast over the radio.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just a thought - what makes the 9th Symphony stand out so, is not so much its emotive punch; as its inner resolution. It reminds me, in some ways, of a Dickens novel. Perfect it isn't and neither was Dickens, but they were both very very good. Possibly the best at what they did.