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How classical music confronts current history and speaks loudly

David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic

Updated: Thursday, December 7, 2017, 4:05 PM

Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Leningrad 1958.

Classical music, by some definitions, is an unchanging cultural monument from a better past. In truth, its survival is based on its ability to morph by the moment. The notes on the page stay the same, but how they’re translated into sound — and how they’re heard — changes right along with the history surrounding it.

So how will we hear now-disgraced Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine given his sexual misconduct scandal? His Verdi Requiem performances — recently broadcast and now circulating among the opera community — arrived with another layer: They were dedicated to (and possibly informed by) the memory of the recently deceased baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

How such things are manifested in classical music is a slippery topic, full of gut feelings that are hard to verify — but that often can be thanks to the flood of musical information on YouTube.

Example: When I first heard Jacqueline du Pre’s famous 1970 recording of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, I wrote that she sounded like a freedom fighter. Only in recent weeks did I discover how right I was. A BBC television performance, recently discovered and posted on YouTube, has du Pre playing the concerto in protest only days after the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Even more than in the 1970 recording, she made the great Czech composer Dvorak speak with outrage, digging into her strings with such ferocious rhetoric that she broke a string later in the performance.

Not everybody can pull it off. Conductor Andre Previn and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade have talked about pouring their personal traumas into a performance with results that they said were self-indulgent and baffling to audiences. Some performers cultivate a certain separation between church and state. Shortly before a Philadelphia recital a few years ago, bass-baritone Eric Owens found out that a friend had died in a plane crash. He had tears rolling down his face for the first half of the concert. But what came out of his mouth was so controlled you could assume he was just sweating profusely. (After intermission, he explained himself to the audience).

The right music, though, expands overwhelmingly when merged with larger historic incidents. Leonard Bernstein often used the symphonic repertoire to confront the world outside the concert hall — and never more than when he conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The piece is always a journey from deepest darkness to brilliant light. But in this performance, how could every note not have a heightened purpose with an orchestra united by shared grief?

Longtime Philadelphia Orchestra music director Eugene Ormandy typically plowed the waves of the symphonic repertoire with the luxury and confidence of an Old World ocean liner. Yet he dramatically departed from his usual self when conducting the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 on a 1958 tour of the Soviet Union. The symphony’s initial chords seize your ears effectively enough, but almost immediately, the performance becomes strangely perfunctory, as though Ormandy was just getting through the histrionic stuff en route to something more important. Upon arrival at the opening movement’s second theme group, the performance acquires an extra charge. It’s one of the few passages of repose in the entire symphony. Remember, this was the Cold War, and playing that passage with such swelling warmth is clearly a conciliatory act.

Then, two-thirds of the way through the “largo” movement, a passage that’s always the intense emotional core of the piece took on extra voltage. Here was an American orchestra bringing the music of a living Russian composer back to its home territory, and doing so with a sense of common humanity, as though to say, “We feel your music, maybe as deeply as you do.”

The subversive grand finale is full of brass fanfares but with harmonic dissonances peeking out around the edges, sort of like the 1812 Overture with a big stone in its shoe. Depending on how the chords are balanced, the ending can be about patriotic victory or the apotheosis of agony. In Ormandy’s commercial recording of the Shostakovich 5th, dissonances are there, but you have to look for them. In Russia, there’s no missing them.

Coded protest is everywhere in the 1938 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”) made by the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwangler around the time of Kristallnacht, the nightmare turning point in the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Furtwangler’s politics were complicated and contradictory, though he protected Jewish musicians in any number of ways and was said to have been devastated by the Nazi destruction of synagogues all over Germany.

Furtwangler had been all set to make his professional exit from Germany by taking over the New York Philharmonic in 1936. But by that time, he was too sullied by associations with the Third Reich and New York wouldn’t have him. Thus, his means of protest included the kind of flexible tempos that allowed Tchaikovsky’s symphonic textures to gather like storm fronts that burst open with apocalyptic magnitude. The bulk of the recording dates, however, were before Kristallnacht. Yet much anti-Semitic brutality led up to that, and Tchaikovsky’s confessional music was a ready magnet for the conductor’s outrage.

Of course, listeners play a strong hand in this process. In the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 9/11 concert at the Mann Center in 2001, I wasn’t close enough to the stage to pick up the fine points of what cellist Han-Na Chang was doing with an unaccompanied Bach sonata. Yet, looking down from the upper reaches of that huge venue, the music combined with the distant visual image of this diminutive musician doing something profound gave me hope amid a tragedy that had no resolution.

Cut to the James Levine problem. Music, I’m convinced, doesn’t come from the mind and maybe not even from the heart; it’s only colored by those things. Music comes from someplace else. Maybe our better selves? Levine’s recent Verdi Requiem broadcast had his typical hallmarks — strong attention to the words and general atmosphere where singers are concerned less about the mechanics of the performance and more about the expressive content. The broadcast doesn’t show him at his best. But I hear only Levine the musician here. And I hope I never hear anything but.

David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic

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