Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958- )
Piano Concerto (2006-2007)
Yefim Bronfman, piano
New York Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
[Now with sound clips! Climax? of the first movement]
World premiere! Well, last week it was.
Didn’t really do it for me, nor, I think, for the composer or the soloist or anyone else involved. There was a little interview session prior to the performance and a Q&A afterward, and the feeling in the air was, “The piece isn’t terrific but the commission has definitely been fulfilled.” Bronfman couldn’t be brought to say much at all about the piece – though I thought his performance was strong. I’ve seen him perform once before and heard several of his recordings and have never been particularly impressed, but this time I was. Of course, there was less occasion for him to attain clarity here. Or at least I was less aware of what sort of clarity I could hope for from him.
The piano part certainly seemed to be full of difficulties. Not clear to what end. The piece was imitative of a thousand things from the repertoire and didn’t have much in the way of form beyond the list of consecutive episodes that constituted the composer’s program note. Motivic unity is not form; the fact that one section develops a previous section or is derived from the same material is not a reason for that section to exist. The piece seemed to want to be a guided stroll past a series of landscapes, possibly fantastical ones – several references to sci-fi imagery in the descriptive notes – in other words, a piece that’s going to live or die on the strength of its color and variety and mood, forget form. If that’s the choice you’re making – and I generally have no problem with that choice – then your superficial effects had better be really good, and these were only so-so. It didn’t help that John Adam’s Piano Concerto (Century Rolls) is built on very similar lines (even in some of the particulars), out of very similar materials, and gleams and pops and whizzes that much louder and brighter. And I don’t think that’s his greatest piece. But in the game of superficial panache, he’s just much more practiced.
At one point in the program note he says that something happens “accompanied by a very lightly scored orchestra.” It wasn’t “very lightly scored” at all! Only by the standards of this constantly thick-textured piece, maybe. Trends in both classical and pop music have definitely driven the contemporary composer to believe that a big part of his job is arranging the dense web of the orchestra, and I certainly appreciate a nicely worked-out texture – but actually it takes much more craft and taste to let the the instruments be exposed in their simplest guises. Endless orchestral busywork starts to seem like a way of avoiding the strictures of that craft. Another sign is overuse of tuned drums, which are, to me, just a big traffic sign that advertises “the clamor of modern orchestral music!” and little else.
Salonen had a section he called “Synthetic Folk Music with Artificial Birds” – i.e. an idyll by and for robots – which is a promising enough musical concept. I just didn’t think his synthetic folk music or his artificial birds were particularly striking. Whereas the mechanical nightingale in Stravinsky’s Nightingale – created much more simply and efficiently than this thick-textured thing – delighted me the first time I heard it. Casting off form might seem to be freeing – he talked a lot about the ideal of a piece developing organically – but it actually just places even greater stress on the quality of your musical surface, and more formal import on its subtleties. This surface just wasn’t handled with as much control as it required.
I can now add several more things, because I have obtained, er, a reviewer’s copy of the score. One: that this piece has the telltale signs of having been composed on a synthesizer and then orchestrated to match. Two: that the chords that come off as copies of Scriabin, Messiaen and Ravel are actually spelled all funny, because they’ve been obtained by some quasi-modal procedures, which makes the imitations both more and less frustrating. Less, because they seem not to be conscious imitations after all (as the New York Times assumed they were). More, because what’s happened is he’s set up some pseudo-system to make his piece have its own peculiar “sound-world,” as they say, and then, letting his ear guide him through the chords it produces, has ended up choosing the ones that are familiar from other music. Basically he tried to do the kind of scale-as-harmony-as-melody thing that Scriabin did, but without the extreme rigor or the maniacal quality. But those are exactly what make Scriabin’s music work. Instead we end up with something that sounds like John Adams, but less well-orchestrated and with even more noodling, if you can believe that.
Another thought, thunk both at the concert and again upon study of the score – there are thousands and thousands of ways to deploy the composer’s toolbox to “develop” material, and most of them absolutely unfollowable. To disguise some piece of music such that people can’t recognize it is the easiest thing in the world; in fact it will happen whether you like it or not unless you are very very careful and make only the slightest movements. The contemporary composer’s need to show that he’s done hard work and created a complicated, priceworthy, thing tends to drive him to deploy trick after trick after trick, like a movie progressing from a dream sequence directly to a flashback directly to a montage directly to a movie-within-a-movie. Much harder for everyone is to maintain a narrative that can be followed, and then, when it is followed, reveals something that interests people. Easy, and tired, to say that that’s old-fashioned. It very obviously isn’t, it’s just harder.
I don’t believe that composers, writers or other artists now are less talented or stupider than artists of yore – I just think they’ve been prodded and taunted with a bunch of imaginary nonsense that they spend all their energy trying to duck out from under, and it doesn’t take long for all that twitching to become second-nature; unshakable even after someone points out there’s nothing to duck. I think everyone’s shell-shocked by this phantom idea that some damage has been done to the human spirit that must be given its due. That’s some rather extravagant self-pity modern man has going. Yes, we may have the threat of actual self-annihilation whirring somewhere far over our heads, and there’s definitely something grotesque about the falseness and noise that technology and commercial culture have imposed on the world – but please, this means that wanting to look at a painting is now naive? Unless the painting somehow excuses itself? Who made this up? People who lived through the Peloponnesian War probably said, “I saw so many atrocities; Nothing will ever be the same – no more sculpture of Aphrodite in the garden – we know more than that now, our souls are forever fractured.” But that’s just individuals being traumatized, not society. Plus, society seems to put itself back together pretty fast. Why does this wounded sense of lost innocence have to live on forever in the arts? Sitting in the concert hall, having to think about all the reasons why this piece was what it was rather than one of the myriad things we all know to make sense – I have to say that I felt no communal awareness of the uniquely contemporary absurdity of the human condition – I just felt a weary, dutiful openness to nonsense.
Two anecdotes and then I’ll stop, I’ll really stop. 1) During the Q & A, a guy asked whether he had been right in hearing “Gershwin and American jazz” in the piece. Salonen said that he had two answers, the first being some chat about his experiences with America and L.A., the second being the laugh line: “Why not?” I recount this only to point out that “why not” might be down-to-earth but it’s still on the defensive. The Q & A guy had obviously been happy to recognize Gershwin sounds; there wasn’t the slightest hint of animosity in the room toward the idea of using those sounds in a piece. But that animosity was somewhere, lurking, and Salonen couldn’t help but direct his answer at it. Or, rather, he directed his answer conspiratorially at the audience, as though maybe we were all going to sneak out of class while the teacher wasn’t looking. Who is this teacher?? World War II? World War I? Snap out of it!
2) During the initial interviews, the man behind me, one of the hundreds of aging, practiced orchestra-goers that made up the bulk of the audience, muttered “Bullshit!” angrily under his breath. It wasn’t clear what was being objected to – Salonen was in the middle of saying something about trying to let music grow rather than force it into a form. I suppose the man might have thought that compositional approach was bullshit, or maybe that metaphors in general were bullshit. But I think it’s more likely that he came prepared for some kind of bullshit, was eager to call it by its name, and just jumped the gun a little. This is a perfect example of what happens to criers of “wolf,” e.g. the past 50 years of art. Something something, in a crowded theater, something something. Okay, the end.