Friday, May 10, 2013

Loud Quiet Loud

My old friend and boss at the Downtown News, Jack Skelley, used to insist that classical music should be played loud, and I took him to mean not only that he had a taste, as I did, for noisy 20th-century fare but that, no matter the era or aesthetic, orchestral music, played by large ensembles or small, wasn't, and shouldn't be relegated to becoming, soothing background music. I'm afraid that's the role too often played by "classical" music in our culture, and it's a deficit I've struggled with as a listener and a musician myself. But this background status is more than just a function of middlebrow snobbery, Mozart-is-good-for-your-baby classism, or our distracted iPod Shuffle listening habits; it's built into the dynamic range of orchestral music itself. As loud as the fortissimos get, the pianissimos need the breathing room to be as quiet as, well, breathing.

This is especially true of 20th century orchestral music, in which form and sound are as much a part of the content as harmony and melody were, roughly speaking, for 19th century music. The sound worlds of the post-Mahler orchestra aren't just riddled with dissonance, which is the bum rap that contemporary music has gotten for more than a century now, but by slippery textures, jagged effects, unsettling shifts and swells and surprises, and what I would call sonic scope. There's a good reason that the even tempos and relatively untroubling loud-soft dynamics of Bach or Mozart function so well as the equivalent of musical wallpaper; it's not just the nice tunes and consonant harmonies; it's that you can set the volume on one level and not be jarred. You can even put it on Shuffle with pop music and it doesn't interrupt the flow!

All of which is another way of sharing my recent revelation (or rediscovery, more likely) of one thing that 20th-century orchestral music, from Stravinsky to Adams, shares with live theater: Yes, it can be recorded and read, but it really only lives in performance. That was the point made by my wife's uncle, William Weinert, about Britten's War Requiem, which he conducted masterfully last weekend at the Eastman School of Music, where he's the professor of conducting and choral director; and his advocacy on this point was the main reason our family made the trek to Rochester. As an intermittent Britten-head, and I'm ashamed to say I had no familiarity with the piece; it is, to state the obvious, a stunning, emotionally riveting work, whose intertwining of the Latin Mass with Wilfred Owen's stark, graphic, but circumspect anti-war poems, and whose rattling, reverberant sound and fury, gave me the sensation of a cracking-open, a painful, raw exposure to the wounds of war, even as the music bound them up in a kind of fierce, defiant dignity. (I will pause to note here, as well, that the work shares one harmonic characteristic I would argue is emblematic of 20th-century music, as a reading of Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise demonstrated: the tritone.)

Apart from the Requiem's extraordinary content and impact, the bittersweetness I felt in registering both the work's hugeness (it employs a large orchestra, a small chamber ensemble within that, a huge adult choir, and a children's choir) and its intricate intimacy (there are three vocal soloists, sometimes accompanied by no more than a violin or two, or not at all) had all to do with its sense of immediacy, its unrepeatability, its complexity of feeling and means of expression, and again that issue of wide dynamic range, from booming to flickering—all things that are hard to register via headphones on my work commute, which, there's no use denying, is the main way I experience music I don't otherwise play myself.

I felt similarly about the recent Gospel According to the Other Mary: I would like to own that on record, as I would the Britten, while realizing full well that, as with musical cast albums or operas, these will best be experienced in toto, and in relative quiet, all the better to register their range. Or, as Uncle Bill has retaught me, in person. With our whole selves and our whole attention, after all, is the best way to honor not only the dead but the living arts, as well.

Cross-posted on The Wicked Stage.

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