Saturday, July 24, 2010


"Hands up anyone who hasn't heard the Beethoven 5?" asked David Robertson nearing the end of his engaging preconcert talk last night. A bit like asking if there were any Martians in town, almost, and there was a collective hush as his eyes scanned the crowd, apparently not finding any little green men dressed as concert-goers, before glancing on someone sitting to the side on the purple steps. "Excellent" he said, with a wide toothy smile. "You're going to love it. It's really good".

He only spoke briefly about the Beethoven and with an infectious sense of fun described the famous opening as akin to a teenager, impatient for his first driving lesson, in the garage revving dad's car through neutral before letting off the clutch, only to have the (caddy maybe, he's an elfish American) jerk forward - Uh Uh Uh Craash (garage door) - then suddenly thrown in reverse - Uh Uh Uh Craassh (garage wall). Take it seriously, but have fun, seemed his message. And when you're listening, if nothing else, he cautioned, remember that there was a time when the Beethoven 5 didn't exist. Imagine that.

His point I think was that there is no reproduction, as in bringing home from Paris a print of the Mona Lisa, but that with the building blocks, each 5th is built as it goes along. To that extent, you might have heard Beehoven's 5th, but you haven't heard the one you're about to hear. Having been stunned by the Kleiber/Vienna last week, and I mean all week, I can vouch for that.

Creation (and the shock of it) was never far below the surface of the main talk topic, (the Australian premier of) John Adams and his Doctor Atomic Symphony. The talk was why we'd made the effort, rearranged the late afternoon, indulged an early dinner (nothing displaces dinner), and arrived in good time. If he'd asked who'd heard the Doctor Atomic Symphony, or Opera, I suspect the number of hands would have been similar to those not having heard the B5. Moreover, I think this was the first time I'd heard a conductor give the talk before dashing off to reemerge on the concert platform in white tie and tails. And I had formed a slightly negative impression on his last visit (rash judgement my mother would have said) which I was keen to realign.

David Robertson is a long time friend of John Adams and commissioned the Symphony for his St Louis Symphony Orchestra. He is the dedicatee. It isn't a pastiche of the opera, not a best-bits-tempter, but a work secure in its own integrity. Robertson used The Marriage of Figaro and Mozart's Prague Symphony as an example of parallelism in composition, melody and rhythms easily spotted, locked in time and place and output. John Adams found this his hardest work, anything but a refashioning of sorts to gain exposure and popularise his opera, and a good thing too noted David Robertson. In a first for Adams, his initial deadline was unmet. The premier was in London in 2007, the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (very off Broadway) and the critics were guarded. After reworking, the North American premier was the next year with David Robertson and the St Louis Symphony. It deals with the clash of science and humanism, of extremes never before imagined, let alone attempted, and a glimpse of heaven and hell.

The hall was near capacity, and there seemed more children than usual. There's never any children on a Friday night, and it was wonderful to see. One little girl curled up on her mothers folded scarf during the night, not asleep I thought, but content.

The Adams was a tremendous thoughtful provoking story, confronting but optimistic, a tuba Erda of a native American woman, a haunting trumpet call to reason, and a pervading sense of a diety. Robertson was at home here. You felt strongly it could be in no better hands. The talk at interval was one of pleasant surprise.

The Chopin second piano concerto was in Garrick Ohlsson's hands. It was familiar and lovely, if slowish, but even slowish couldn't rob it of Mr Ohlssons' sparkle. Just how it ended up between the Adams and the Beethoven is a bit of a mystery, but it was a palate cleanser, if one were needed.

The last 5th I think I heard was Gelmetti's and I remember it fondly I think, all rounded and comfortable. Robertson's reflected his persona as much as Gelmetti's had. It was taught and terrific, with exemplary vigorous playing and terrific control and balance. It was good, really good.

I like hearing the performers. Here's Garrick Ohlsson talking, firstly a short chat about Chopin, and then a long (1 hr 20) look at the piano, Chopin and other questions, courtesy of UCBerkeleyEvents. Take the time and watch, it's really good.

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