It seems I spent a fair amount of time last week listening to Haydn. Now I like Haydn and can usually identify a piece of music as having been written by Haydn, but truthfully I never thought about Haydn much, or listened, actually listened to the music that much, well perhaps with the exception of the oboe concerto. But I've always had a thing for the sound of the oboe.
Anyway, last week, following a conversation with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's Music Director, Aram Demirjian, I found myself scrolling through youtube, listening to Haydn symphonies. Initially I was seeking out performances conducted by Roger Norrington, but eventually I expanded my search only to return once again to Norrington. I had forgotten about Haydn's sense of humor, the way the music plays with the listener, occasionally surprising, almost always sparking a smile.
I knew that the KSO's chamber concert this past Sunday would include Haydn, specifically the symphony # 82, but I did not listen to that particular symphony prior to the performance. I did not want to add a layer of expectation to my enjoyment of the performance, rather just reacquaint myself with the composer. And it is true, that by Sunday afternoon I was eager to hear the performance, a performance I enjoyed immensely. The Haydn was almost raucously joyful, especially in the last movement where the music imitates the sounds of bagpipes, intended to remind listeners of village fairs with their bagpipes and dancing bears. It is a happy, joyful sound, music that left this listener grinning from ear to ear.
In fact the entire concert was stunning. The Haydn was followed by an earlier work by Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a work I was not really at all familiar with, but which I also enjoyed. The incredible balance in the music, and in soloist Gordon Tsai's performance, between artfully placed arcs of dramatic tension and flowing lyricism, once again left me with soaring heart.
Following the intermission, the symphony performed the one contemporary work on the program, and it was a piece perfectly chosen to complement the performance and expand listener's horizons. Carolyn Shaw's Entr'acte for String Quartet or String Orchestra was written in 2011, and there are strong echoes of Haydn, although the work is quite modern as well, bridging that debt to history, but acknowledging the present. In fact as I listened to the work I was reminded of the Brentano Quartet playing Haydn, a group I have hear on more than one occasion (and whose recoding of the Haydn Quartets I also own). I never read the notes before the performance, but was then not surprised to find that not only had the work been inspired by a performance of Haydn's Quartet #2, played by the Brentano, but that the Brentano played in the first performance of this work, in its quartet form. Anyway I found the music mesmerizing, especially in the way the classical theme appeared and then evolved into something more modern, doing so without really jarring, reminding me more of memory and understanding the way one lives in the present, but the past is still there, always coloring and influencing our choices.
The concert ended, as it should with Mozart's Symphony 31 in D Major, with its grand, swooping, and almost swaggering sound, probably the grandest opening I can recall in Mozart. an opening that is almost mocking in its extravagance. And yet, I increasingly think that is the genius of Mozart, that he can bring the music right to the razor's edge of parody without crossing that line, creating something incredibly beautiful, so beautiful that we might not even see (or hear) how close perfection is to mockery.
Anyway, it was a lovely performance, marred by the interruption of bouts of applause from the audience. I do, generally, think that moving away from the formality and imposed seriousness of classical music concerts is a good thing, and sometimes intermittent applause does not bother me, at least in moderation, but this time it did, and I left a little a wee tad disgruntled.
Not for long however. It has been a busy week in terms of performance, and I have had little time to mull over my discontent. Sunday evening I returned downtown to hear Alison Krause at the Tennessee theater, and frayed sensibilities were suitably soothed and enchanted. I had worried about the concert somewhat, much as I love music, most music, I often struggle with popular bluegrass/folk/country/pop concerts as too often they are a uniform mix of new work and crowd favorites that to my peripatetic brain waves all start to sound the same, whereas I really want a little dynamic programing and variation. Krause has a varied repertoire however; I hoped for the best and was not disappointed.
Tuesday night I went to an organ recital by the wonderful local organist James Garvey. I was awed by the music, by the skill and mastery not only in the performance but in the program organization as well, complex, balanced, thrilling. The concert opened with Bach and progressed through a remarkable balancing of music, with Distler, Franck, Leguay and Dupre. George would have loved the Franck, and I sat happily with his presence in my heart as I listened to the music. Everything was grand, but I soared with the Bach, and my heart danced with the Lequay, sometimes shocked alert, at other times peering through the clouds. There is something about atonal music that always alerts my brain, makes every cell vibrate, and I continue to think, when done well, clears away the fog and shadows that shape our perception of reality, showing us something of the universe beyond.
Last night I was downtown again, at the university, where I had tickets to Alias Grace, a marvelous and challenging play that addresses so many issues that affect society, and yet does so in a beautiful and compelling manner. Although many issues are addressed, this is really a play about memory and truth, and it asks more questions than it answers. Yet this member of the audience felt that the performance was graceful and sensitive, and that the conclusion was satisfyingly humane and complex, neither pandering to easy answers nor burdened with excess questions, only thoughts, and perhaps insight, or at least hope for insight.