The Agony and the Ecstasy
Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra Sanders Theater last Friday
IT WAS NOT A typical beginning of an orchestra concert. The violinists shrieked at the top of their register without definable pitch, while the cellists slapped their instruments and scraped violently below the bridge with their bows, creating a tumult like the roar of giant wasps. Periodically, the screams would subside into desolate silence, fearfully anticipating the next frantic outburst. It was the Threnody written in 1960 by the Polish composer Penderecki as a memorial to the victims of Hiroshima, and it conjures vividly the sirens, the explosions, and the terrible agonies of the dying during the atomic blast.
The score of the piece is no less graphic than the sound, with bold, black triangles and squares on the staff and instructions like "highest possible pitch" and "fast non-rhythmic tremolo" replacing the more specific traditional indications. As a result, the performers allowed great liberties in giving shape to an enormous variety of sounds. Last Friday, James Yannatos led the HRO in a performance that was at the same time skillfully structured and frighteningly immediate in its impact. The build toward the major climaxes possessed the unerring sense of direction and the searing intensity of a great horror story and the final fading away produced the desired effect of a helpless submersion in utter darkness.
The incorporation of noise--random sounds or deliberately unpleasant ones--is common in contemporary compositions. Composers who are willing to use elements other than beautiful instrumental tone can choose among a wide range of new sound possibilities. Penderecki's depiction of the Hiroshima bombing is terrifyingly vivid because he can evoke the sounds of that event in a concrete, physical way, using clusters of notes, angry raspings and other unlovely sounds.
This new musical language is marvelous for the expression of horror, desolation, despair, and other standard 20th-century emotions. It is less appropriate for pastoral scenes or nostalgic longing. For the expression of these states, a more conservative, traditional idiom is needed, and Aaron Copland, whose Appalachian Spring was the second work of the concert, is one of the century's great conservatives. Appalachian Spring uses an intentionally accesible idiom which relies on triads and simple melodies mostly drawn from folk-songs to evoke a "pioneer celebration of Spring."
The HRO was somewhat lugubrious in its treatment of the light dance-tunes, and their heavily accented version of the Shaker song "Simple Gifts" sounded a bit like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", but these failings were more than compensated for by their delicacy during the so-called duo between the Bride and her Intended, and by the almost fervent, prayerful quality they brought to the quiet ending.
IN ANOTHER giant step away from the tortured world of Penderecki, the HRO ended its concert with the Second Symphony of Brahms. Although he had written a number of symphonic works, like the two orchestral serenades and the Haydn Variations, Brahms was middle-aged before he published his first symphonies. The reason for his hesitation is clear: "I shall never compose a symphony! You have no idea how hard it is for our kind to hear the tramp of a giant like [Beethoven] behind us." But Brahms finally mustered his courage, published his First Symphony in 1876 and followed it a year later with the Second.
The orchestra gave an exuberant performance, brazening through technical obstacles by dint of sheer energy. The strings, particularly the lower strings, produced a consistently rich, resonant sound, and the brass fanfare at the end provided a triumphant finish to the HRO's season opener.
After a financially dismal season last year, there was talk that the HRO was going to resort to gimmicky and war-horsey programming in order to insure filled houses. But although for the first time in many years they won't be able to afford a big-name soloist, their programs remain uncompromised and varied, posing a continuing series of worthwhile challenges to this excellent orchestra.