I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last weekend, after having argued with myself about whether it was worth the trouble or not. That's no aspersion on the orchestra; it's just that the main attraction was Brahms's Fourth, a work that I love and know pretty well, and I was not sure the pleasure of hearing it performed live, probably not quite as well as on recordings, justified the expense (not that much) and the drive (a little over an hour). Desire to support the orchestra was one of the things that tipped me over to yes, go.
It was worth it. In spite of what I just said about knowing the Brahms, it may well be more than thirty years since I last heard it, possibly more. I think I listened to it a fair amount when I was in college and soon afterward, when my ears and my sensibility were young and fresh, and apparently it had really imprinted itself on me. I had forgotten just how much I love it...except for that last movement. I never have been touched by it. It's a passacaglia (a structure similar to a theme and variations, but with the underlying motive a bass or chordal movement, not a melody). And I remember thinking all those years ago that the problem must be that I simply didn't understand it. I don't think I ever made much effort to follow the changes of the form; the music just didn't touch me.
This time I really made a concerted effort to keep the pattern in mind, actually counting the measures and focusing on trying to keep the foundation in mind as a variety of structures were built atop it. That effort broke down about two-thirds of the way through--I don't know whether the pattern itself varies or I just couldn't keep up.
But that shouldn't matter. One shouldn't have to think about the structure of a piece in order to be affected by it. And, once more after all these years, it still doesn't touch me. That's okay, because the first three movements had me almost ecstatic. I remembered them more accurately than I expected. I remembered it so well, and liked it so much, that I almost feel that I don't need to hear it again, ever. Maybe now I should just listen to the fourth movement several times in a row, and see if anything happens.
Who, you may ask, is Caroline Shaw? She's a young composer of whom I had never heard before Saturday, but I'm sure going to hear more of her now. The first piece in the program was a to-me-forgettable overture by Weber. The second was a work for chorus and orchestra by Shaw, "In Common Time." And the third was Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."
I was entirely prepared to be bored at best, annoyed at worst, by the Shaw piece. Oh yeah, we know what to expect: some aimless and disconnected sounds, some pleasant and some not, maybe some pretentious notes about how it reflects the anxieties of our times etc. I would not have been at all surprised if it was said to be about climate change.
But it won me over, and then some. Yes, it's...odd to the ears of those who love, for instance, Brahms, but that's hardly a new thing. More deeply, there's the whole problem of modern music, as with modern poetry and painting, not simply being not very much like but also not really as good, by some semi-objective criteria, as older and more traditional classical music. It does not have either the technical or emotional reach of 19th (and some 20th) century music, just as most contemporary poetry does not come off very well in comparison with, for instance, Tennyson, or even Housman.
But this mostly wordless piece, which started out as pleasant, went deeper as it progressed, especially when the few bits of words came in: "Years ago...I forget...years to come...let them."
And what really iced the cake for me was that Shaw's work was followed without a break (this was announced beforehand) by the Mozart. The effect for me was profound, the radiant beauty of the second somehow resolving the restless longing of the first. Afterwards I went to the orchestra's Facebook page solely to offer my thanks to whoever it was who came up with the idea for that combination.
Here's "In Common Time." I did, I should say, find a few things about it a little off-putting: the clattering among the strings, for one, which sounded to me as if it were something more than col legno, striking of the strings with the wood of the bow. It seems gimmicky to me, not to mention ugly. And I could do without some of the vocal effects. Still, I like it.
Many or most Catholics, and I suppose all Catholics who have an interest in classical music, will recognize "Ave Verum Corpus."
I can imagine someone saying that the Mozart just proves the deficiencies of the Shaw. Well, what can I say?--I liked it, and I liked the combination. It was a memorable night.
I think there is in fact a good deal of interesting music being made by people trained in classical technique and sensibility. I put it that way because the word "classical" doesn't seem exactly applicable to the music itself. I'll have more to say about that sometime before too long.