Friday night I conducted Orchestra of the Swan in a program of
Mozart- Symphony no. 13
Haydn- Cello Concerto in C Major (Nick Stringfellow, cello)
Mendelssohn- Songs Without Words
Haydn- Symphony no. 34 (“The Farewell”)
I had the makings of a lengthy and thoughtful blog post about this concert swirling in my head for hours after the concert, but I was too physically tired to type, even though I couldn’t sleep. Coming off a nasty flu in the week, and still struggling with my throat, it’s been a tough, tough week physically.
So, most of that post is going to end up in the ether.
Let me just say, fearlessly stating the obvious (but perhaps not yet obvious enough) that Haydn 45 is an astonishing, stunning, mind blowing, heart-wrending, fist-clenching, breath-holding super masterpiece. For all those suckers out there who still think of Haydn’s music as the essence of servile gentility, and of classical music in general of being the cozy sound track of the upper middle classes, and of chamber orchestra being the slightly more well-mannered cousin of the symphony orchestra, I wish you could have been there.
This was Haydn played by a small orchestra of committed virtuosos absolutely playing like they were on fire. No Bartok or Stravnisky work could have brought out more energy or physicality. We had foot stamping, we had grunting, we had snorting. The first movement had the sort of apocalyptic drive one associates with a good Beethoven 5, but the Haydn is more experimental and therefore, perhaps, more dramatic. (We worked wonders with the long delayed second theme- it took up a huge chunk of our rehearsal time to achieve it, though.) That slow movement flirted with sublime madness- some of those modulations must be among the most strangely beautiful and beautifully strange moments in all music. Fortunately, the finale didn’t lapse into camp- I’d hoped that it would feel like an honest meditation on silence and mortality, and it felt that way. Can I just say, for the record, (completely breaking my “glass houses” rule) how juvenile and annoying I found Daniel Barenboim’s mugging in the New Year’s Day performance this piece with the VPP in January. Haydn deserved to be taken seriously, especially when billions are watching.
Somehow with Haydn, too many people spray paint a veneer of safe on top of everything he does. The Strum und Drang bits are played as quaint relics of a musical fad for dramatic music instead of as real dramatic music. The jokes are robbed of their bite, and therefore, their humor. The sad stuff is tamed and gentrified. What can’t we just forget all those assumptions, and play what he wrote- let the wild music be wild, the funny music be funny? I suppose period bands have the great advantage here because they can rip into their instruments with total abandon and still sound “of Haydn’s time” where a modern instrument pushed too hard will start to sound Bartok-ish if one isn’t incredibly disciplined. Still, only one period band I know really rips the strings off in Haydn (Concentus Musicus Wien, under Harnoncourt, who aren’t afraid to push the old instruments to their limits).
Anyway, wish you could have been there. Actual stomping onstage from the players. In Haydn. I felt like I was back in my rock band days…..