Nicola Benedetti played with ferocity and delicacy.
Sometimes researchers go into the lab with an experiment and don’t get the results they wanted. This can be said of scientific research, and it can be said of artistic endeavors.
Wynton Marsalis and Nicola Benedetti performed a grand experiment in the form of a violin concerto and, for me, it was other than great. The music was impressive from a technical standpoint, but it simply didn’t make any sense. We got a chance to hear it at the San Diego Symphony over the weekend of Friday, October 27.
I watched the hour-long documentary about the creation of this concerto, and it seemed pretty clear that the process was contentious. We had a repeat of the Samuel Barber concerto in which case what Barber wrote was considered too easy. Benedetti expresses the same sentiment toward what Marsalis originally wrote.
There is no doubt that Benedetti is a formidable violinist. She played between the poles of ferocity and delicacy covering almost all of the ground between the two. The musicianship was not in question at all.
The piece welcomed the audience in with what might be the most beautiful opening to a violin concerto in the entire repertoire. That opening theme was revisited near the end of the movement which made me feel included and at home. Unfortunately that never happened again.
This is the greatest shortcoming of new music. Composers of the present day rarely let the audience feel as though they’ve come home by returning to a previous theme after an extended development. Here is a partial list of composers who do understand how to do this and do it well.
Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Von Weber, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Bellini, Bruckner, Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Purcell, Corelli, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Grieg, Bizet, Rimsky Korsakov, Bernstein, Copland, Barber, Beach, Berlioz, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Borodin, Giordano, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, John Lennon, Chuck Berry, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Hans Zimmer, Korngold, Saint Saens, Massenet, Gounod, and Rachmaninoff.
You get the idea.
Why contemporary composers refuse to participate is beyond me. The potential result is an alienation of the audience. At the intermission I asked my daughter what she felt about the music. She said it felt like she wasn’t included in what was happening. “You know, like, I was invited to be a part of it.”
Granted, that’s a small sample size but it summed up what I was feeling as well. The music had been written for someone, but it wasn’t me. That sounds like an insufferable amount of ego, but the composers mentioned above all manage to let me feel included and welcome in the music they wrote, almost as if it were written for me.
Of course the audience stood on their back paws and clapped. How could they not? The amount of time, talent, and effort which went into the composition and the performance was obvious and overwhelming. I was impressed but unmoved.
Here’s a little test I give myself at the conclusion of a piece of music I’ve never heard before. I ask myself if I want to hear it again, right now, instead of whatever is next on the program. In this case the next piece of music was Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov, so obviously the answer was no.
Spoiler alert: the answer is going to be no until a composer bends the knee and writes something which audiences can connect to on an emotional level.
Speaking of connecting on an emotional level, a Carmen Suite by Bizet was on the program. Having sung in the opera three times, I always find it interesting to hear how a non-operatic conductor approaches this concert-ized version.
Make no mistake, Cristian Măcelaru, the conductor for this concert, has conducted opera, but he isn’t an opera conductor. His bio mentions two operas while listing dozens of orchestral credentials. The phrasing was precise, but without any singers it came off as somewhat mechanical at times.
Scheherazade was a smashing success. However, maybe because I’m in an overly critical mood, I feel I should point out that as excellent as it was, the tempi tended to be a bit stale, especially in the middle of the second movement. It was as in the Bizet — very precise but a bit on the mechanical side. Yet when Sinbad’s ship came sailing through the Baghdad festival, in the final movement, lightning sprang off the stage and crackled throughout the hall.
Hmmm. Imagine that. A composer returning to a theme from the first movement at the end of a piece in order to create a moment of pure magic.
All in all it was a satisfying night of music. Even an experiment which doesn’t yield the “correct” results contains a significant amount of value.