April 5, 2008

The swan songs of Andreas Delfs

Last night and this evening at Uihlein Hall, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra undertakes Igor Stravinsky's 1913 masterpiece, Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring), together with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the "Pastoral." The concerts are among the final ones in conductor Andreas Delfs's series of Beethoven's nine symphonies before he leaves us for Hawaii and is replaced by Edo De Waart.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's superb classical music critic, Tom Strini, talks about Beethoven's Sixth here.

The MSO's performance of both works — together with George Antheil's 1955 A Jazz Symphony — was outstanding. If there are tickets available for tonight's performance, snap them up. Mr. Delfs's departure will be a huge loss to the community although, fortunately, Mr. De Waart is equally accomplished.

Stravinsky's jarringly dissonant and rhythmically complex, groundbreaking masterwork notoriously inspired a riot at its Paris premiere in 1913, a far cry from last night's enthusastic reception and ovations. I've heard it performed before on a couple of occasions, including by the London Symphony Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall. For my money, Delfs and the MSO's brilliant and sonically perfect reading was the best yet.

Stravinsky hadn't intended to cause a riot, but many of his contemporaries and mutual admirers did, and several years ago during a course in music history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I submitted a written assignment to another Milwaukee institution, Dr. Timothy Noonan, which is reproduced below.

Dr. Noonan is almost literally a walking encyclopedia of music. Among many, many memorable anecdotes proceeding from the two courses I took with Dr. Noonan, one is especially so. A classmate was asking Dr. Noonan in somewhat vague terms about a particular theme from a particular string quartet of Franz Joseph Haydn, the now-underperformed Austrian genius and one of Beethoven's most profound formal and stylistic influences.

Haydn wrote nearly 70 string quartets (he practically invented and perfected the form), nearly all of which contain four separate movements, and each movement contains a number of different musical themes. In other words, Dr. Noonan was being asked to specify a theme from among hundreds, but only those hundreds contained in the works of one specific composer writing in one particular form, the string quartet.

Dr. Noonan thought for a minute and then walked over to the piano and proceeded to play a theme from one of the Haydn quartets. "Is that the one?" Dr. Noonan asked. "That's it!" said the student.* I've never seen anything like it in my life. While Dr. Noonan's scholarly specialty is the 18th century composer Luigi Boccherini, his prodigious expertise extends from the birth of Western music in ancient Greece through the most contemporary of contemporary musicians. His knowledge truly is phenomenal.

In addition, Dr. Noonan is one of the most self-effacing, generous, and kind gentlemen I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. I need to drop by UWM and see him again one of these days.

* It wasn't the German national anthem, either. It was something considerably, considerably less familiar.

You can read about some of Igor Stravinsky's precursors, friends, and inheritors right here:

Part 1
Part 2

eta: Strini's review of last night's performances, including of
the ferocious, relentlessly focused reading of "The Rite." The rhythmic bite and drive of the allegros overwhelmed, and the dark mystery of the static moments crackled with suspense. They didn't really feel like pauses; they felt ominous, as if massive energy were being restrained. This was shocking music in 1913 and it's shocking music today. The enormous orchestra played with monumental force and total discipline, for a conductor who knew exactly what he wanted.
Whew. I'm glad he agrees with this here amateur.


Jay Bullock said...

I'll be down the road tonight for a performance by a much different collection of artists--the Kids in the Hall. I would hope you, as a Canadian, might understand.

illusory tenant said...

I was just aboot to get a ticket for that meself.