Organ Concert 3 April 2011: Schwarz, Seattle Symphony; Brahms, R. Strauss, Saint-Saëns

I had commented to Debby last year that I hoped to hear an organ concert some day at Benaroya Hall’s 2500-seat main auditorium, which houses a Fisk concert organ (tracker action, 83 stops, 4,490 pipes, three manuals). The organ was delivered shortly after the hall was built and had its first performance in 2000. The organ required 50,000 hours of labor.

Debby found a classical music program she thought I’d like that involved organ music and we got some nice tickets for Sunday afternoon. Music Director Gerard Schwarz (retiring after this, his 26th season) conducted the Seattle Symphony in four pieces: Brahms’ Shicksalslied, Strauss’ Thus Sprach Zarathustra, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, and a new world premiere offering.

The Strauss piece was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical allegory of the same name. Its opening theme, octaves over fifths, was used as the opening theme of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a fitting setting for Strauss’ musical dramatization of human evolution. The Saint-Saëns Symphony #3 was written as a tribute on the death of Franz Lizst, which explains the inclusion of both piano and organ.

I am enthused by the music of Brahms, and partial to that of Saint-Saëns and Strauss, so the program was attractive. We got to hear the acoustics of the hall being well-exercised by the Symphony Chorus backing the orchestra in the Brahms and the organ supporting the Saint-Saëns and Strauss. The hall and its organ were conceived on Maestro Schwarz’s watch, as much a part of his large Seattle legacy as is his music making. We are pleased to have been to two of his concerts in our short time here. Sunday’s was a treat.

We showed up an hour early to hear a talk by a local music critic attempting to explain the difference between classical and romantic music. In a nutshell, he thinks classical music deals with external reality as it is, while romantic music deals with internalized fantasies of the real world. Also, it appears that much of classical music tends to the formulaic.

One must excuse his scandalous oversimplification. The audience for the talk appeared to have an average age of over 70, which may have scared him into energetic simplification. Being almost of that age, I sense the audience could have handled a bit more meat. Yet it would be impossible to discuss the subject adequately, even to an audience of musicologists, in the 15 minutes allotted. In the end, such categorizations are not of much substance. We should let the music and our ears tell us what is important to know.

(Aside: My own preferences tend away from 18th century music, whose composers were often paid by benefactors to fill pages with notes; they used well-recognized templates to complete their composition tasks with efficacy, with the added benefit of making the pieces easier for the audience/client to relate to and thus to garner approval. The music strikes me as artifice rather than art; they bared little of their souls in the bulk of their musical offerings. Perhaps my perception of a constrained emotional vocabulary in this period’s music arises from my self-limiting exposure to it, amplified by the composers’ over-catering to public taste. I find more humanism in 17th century and prior music, so clearly it wasn’t because the level of musical art was insufficient to the task.)

The speaker then delved a little into the Schicksalslied, based on a poem by Hölderlin in two parts: first up is a movement depicting the serene and untroubled existence of the immortals of classical antiquity, free from destiny and as content as a sleeping infant. The poem then shifts tone dramatically, depicting the existence of the huddled human masses below, metaphorically a stream tumbling from crag to crag ever downward into an unknown but assuredly dark destiny.

Brahms struggled for three years with an appropriate musical ending that did not mirror the poet’s bleak ending; he eventually simply repeats the opening orchestral prolog in a new key. Brahms certainly desired his composition to capture the poet’s meaning of the bleakness of human destiny, so how can one reconcile Brahms’ serene musical ending? Most say it is the offering of hope for the future, maybe for the afterlife.

The speaker quoted another critic’s different take on this puzzle. Perhaps Brahms’ ending is infused with irony, showing us that rather than caring about the mortals’ tribulations, the immortals go on as if nothing were amiss. They had no concern for man’s struggles, for the little man doesn’t count. (Seems that could be a modern allegory as well.) But to my hearing, the tone of the music doesn’t match such a literary device. Another possible take on the ending is that humans eventually get their act together and end up with an earthly existence that is as tranquil as that of the immortals.

I don’t think that any of these match Brahms’ sensibilities. And in the end, Brahms was not happy with any ending he devised. Yet for Brahms, music was all, so I agree with Swafford’s (Brahms biographer) interpretation that the recapitulation of the serene prolog theme at the end, in the wrong key with chorus tacit, is symbolic of the composer’s musical gifts to us mortals, a ‘ruthless beauty’ with potential to transfigure our troubled existence.

The Brahms turned out to be the hardest of the performed pieces to get one’s ears around. This is the second Brahms orchestral piece under Schwarz that I have heard in this hall, and both seemed slightly muddied and muddled, losing coherence. Perhaps Brahms is not the Maestro’s best match. It also may be that my listening was just off, but I felt let down. I have a couple of fine recordings of the Schicksalslied, one performed in a chamber style emphasizing choral voices over orchestration, effective in its intimacy. Such a setting clarifies Brahms’ textures and fully captures the thematic interest.

At any rate, by the start of the Strauss my concert ears were now warmed up and in tune. Both the Saint-Saëns and Strauss were outstanding, a sonic treat. I have never heard better, although the tempi in the Saint Saëns were sufficiently fast in places that the orchestra seemed to me in danger of losing it (probably not really, but still I sensed some dicey parts).

The organist sits at the console with his back to the conductor, whom he watches on a CC-video monitor. Schwarz does not normally conduct with a baton, but on the organ pieces, he goes with the stick, perhaps providing more visibility to the organist. Stirring music making was complimented by long standing ovations. Magnificent is barely adequate to describe the organ and the hall acoustics.

The world premiere piece is called ‘Across the Span of Time’, by Richard Danielpour. The piece was inspired as a tribute to Maestro Schwarz. It was pleasantly tonal, a sort of trumpet solo with orchestral obbligato. The kicker was a solo trumpet positioned in the upper left rear balcony to dialog with the trumpet soloist on stage. The elderly audience were undoubtedly getting stiff necks craning rearward to catch a glimpse of the offstage soloist. The conceit is that the onstage soloist is having a conversation with his past, the trumpet in the balcony. The composer sat in our row and was spotlighted while he went up to take his bows.


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