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A Vexing Update of Bach

April 17, 2007

The New Century Chamber Orchestra's ongoing season of guest-conducted performances has produced some fascinating programs (see, for example, SFCV's reviews of its January and March sets). April's run, guest-conducted by St. Lawrence Quartet first violinist Geoff Nuttall and heard Saturday at the Florence Gould Theater of San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor, was a dicier affair, owing to the music chosen and the ensemble's (and leader's) approach to it. Having heard Nuttall in his St. Lawrence guise play with breathtaking musical imagination, I think Saturday's concert was a fluke, but it was an oddly hit-or-miss evening.
The Bach D-Minor "Double" Concerto (BWV 1043) that opened the program, for example, was one of those frustrating performances in which the artists seem to have done their earnest best to learn from the historical performance movement, and then systematically internalized all the wrong lessons. It was brisk, especially the first movement; it was energetic; the accompaniment was light and airy except when it was ferocious, in the tuttis; everyone carefully avoided the silky legato of, say, 40 or 50 years ago. All right, yes?

Actually, nearly all wrong. The things missing were precisely the things that good "period" performers by now do instinctively. There was almost none of the intricate, in-the-moment byplay that a "period" band the size of the NCCO would have provided as a matter of course — no sense that the players were reacting in real time to one another, rather than following a script. The very speed of the outer movements precluded the kind of sly variety of articulation in which "period" players delight. The glorious slow movement wasn't allowed to sing as it ought — the opening theme was curiously (and conspicuously) parsed, and the accompanying counter-theme vied with it instead of complementing it.

A thousand times you'd sooner hear the old, smooth, stodgy Bach of your parents' LPs from the 1950s than this distressingly mechanical sort of "updating." The genuinely vexing part is that Nuttall, ex–St. Lawrence Quartet colleague Barry Shiffman (the second violin soloist), and the NCCO are perfectly capable of playing Bach in just that way. (I remember a Brandenburg Six from some years back that was distinctly, and delightfully, "old-school.") They've just apparently gotten it into their heads that you're not allowed to play like that any more. Well, do, please. Or if not, at least spend some time around, say, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra or the American Bach Soloists and learn how to have genuine fun with Bach rather than expending so much thought and energy trying to avoid playing him "wrong."

I am not, by the way, saying that the performance had nothing to admire. There always are things to admire in an NCCO performance. Here they were the crisp ensemble, the unfailing nimbleness of the ripieno playing (especially the bass line), and the soloists' bravado in the gnarlier passagework of the finale. Still, this rendering could have been so much better.
Unbalanced Vision of Beauty
The same went, in a somewhat different way, for Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (done, so far as I could tell, in the first of the composer's two string-orchestra versions). Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured night), written in 1899 for string sextet, is the only one of Schoenberg's works performed with any regularity. The reasons are not mysterious: All the teeming, slithering chromaticism is safely confined to the middle of a plot that begins with a tragic D-minor tread and ends with a long, lingering, achingly beautiful vision of fairyland.

The biggest difficulty with the string-orchestra version is getting the balances right. In the original sextet, the violas and cellos together have the violins outnumbered two to one. On Saturday night it was 10 violins as against four violas, three cellos, and a bass, and there simply was no way for the lower strings — hard though they worked at it — to provide enough "bottom" to the texture. Worse, the violins knew it, and even in some climactic passages seemed to be holding back in deference to their lower colleagues.

Not that the performance lacked passion; far from it. But it was of a fitful, patchy sort. The performance seemed curiously diffuse and, more than once, not quite sure of its direction. And many of the work's great moments simply didn't have the impact they are capable of supplying.

Sometimes the reason was insufficient power (or numbers) in the lower strings, as in the cellos' wonderful D-major theme beginning the second half of the piece. Sometimes it was odd internal balances, as in the wonderful violin solo/cello solo duet right after that, where the busy accompaniment almost swallowed Nuttall's and principal cellist Joanne Lin's eloquent solos. And sometimes the playing felt like risk-avoidance — a reluctance to push too hard, to dare emit an ugly sound, to test the limits of audibility. The magical closing pages were beautifully played, yet I couldn't help feeling that they were just too much there.
Grim Descent
After the Bach on the first half came Arvo Pärt's 1977 Tabula Rasa, for two solo violins (Shiffman taking first this time), strings, and prepared piano (Sarah Cahill). Even by Pärtian standards of slow, repetitive process, this work is a difficult one to bring off. The shorter first movement ("Ludus: Con moto" — literally, "Game, with motion") had enough variety in its alternations between stern soloists and playful ripieno ripostes to take care of itself in the NCCO's dexterous performance. But the much longer second ("Silentium: Senza moto," or "Silence, without motion") demanded more.

The material is so spare, the concept so unrelenting (basically an agonizingly slow, minimally inflected, ritually repetitive descent occupying more than a quarter of an hour), the degree of control required to sustain the music over such a long span so preternatural, that nothing short of total belief in the music from both players and audience will make it work. For many in the audience, it clearly did. For me, it didn't quite. Ordinarily what interests me in hearing music is the initiative, the contributions, of the individual musicians. Here, everything that drew attention to one player or another perversely took me out of Pärt's grimly austere reality and back into the theater's lovely but quite different one.

The prepared piano part deserves mention. For those, like me, whose main experience with "prepared piano" (a catchall term meaning that before the performance an assortment of objects are placed in various spots on or between the instrument's strings) has been John Cage's early Sonatas and Interludes, with their array of rasps, rattles, and other distinctly unpianistic sounds, the effects Cahill got out of her instrument were a surprise. Evidently screws of various sizes are inserted between the strings of particular pitches at their resonating nodes. The result is a purer, more resonant sound, akin to a pianist's equivalent of a "natural harmonic" on a stringed instrument. The effect in Pärt's spare part was stunning.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.