Back at Vftp International Headquarters, I’m starting to recover (slowly) from a busy concert weekend with the Surrey Mozart Players. I actually thought it was an unusually satisfying program.
Mozart- Impresario Overture
Fauré- Pelléas and Melisande Suite
Saint-Saens- Cello Concerto no. 2
Strauss- Romanze for Cello
There were several things about the program I enjoyed. First, it’s quite unusual to have a concert of music by all major composers without a single mainstream warhorse. I suppose the Fauré is the most standard piece we did, but even that is a bit of a rarity. No one had played or ever heard a live performance of the Saint-Saens, including the soloist, Parry Karp, and me, and the Strauss was almost totally forgotten for the better part of 100 years. The Impresario is the first real Mozart piece I ever played, but there were a lot of people who confessed to never having heard it, and the Poulenc is something of a rarity.
Really, we tend to think that if you don’t know a piece by a major composer, there must be a reason- it’s not that good! However, this is not always the case. Some are rare because of specific technical difficulties, some have been out of print, some aree hard to program. It’s so refreshing to remember that there’s always more music to explore.
The other aspect of the program that I particularly liked was the interesting relationships and contrasts between the composers. Fauré and Saint-Saens were very close friends, even though they wrote quite different music, and, to me, Saint-Saens and Richard Strauss are quite similar figures. If either of them had died at the same age as Mozart, they would have gone down in history as among the most radical composers who’d ever lived. Instead, they lived to see themselves become considered arch conservatives. I wish we could get away from this linear way of looking at music history- music is always changing, but never evolving. One generation does not improve on the next, so it’s not incumbent on any composer to keep up with the times. It was nice to have the very early Strauss just after the very late Saint-Saens- both of them found their voices early in life and then just kept writing great music. Strauss may have called himself a “first-rate second rate composer,” and the epitaph could just as easily apply to Saint-Saens, but that’s hardly an insult.
In my rap from the podium, I suggested to the audience that the Poulenc is a bit like one of those magical times as a child when you’re left in the care of a rather permissive guardian- maybe a young cousin or friend of the family. Suddenly, you have the freedom to do things that were always out of bounds, and to behave more irreverently than you ever could in more serious company. It’s such witty music, but also so completely uninhibited- he’s perfectly happy to jump from something beautifully austere to something luxuriously schmaltzy. It’s great fun to conduct- so many fantastic tunes and colors. I found the slow movement the most challenging, just because it doesn’t really have a form. You just kind of have to go with the flow and enjoy yourself- again, for once you can focus on enjoying the sheer decadent beauty of the music, and it’s actually very moving.
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods