Beautiful in Passing: NSO with Debussy, Mackey, Sibelius

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Mackey, Sibelius: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Hannu Lintu (conductor), National Symphony Orchestra, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC. 12.1.2012 (RRR)

Debussy (orch. C. Matthews): Préludes
Mackey: Violin Concerto “Beautiful Passing”
Sibelius: Symphony No.5

On Thursday evening, January 12, 2012, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, offered a very interesting program of five of Debussy’s Préludes in orchestrations by Colin Matthews, the Washington premiere of Stephen Mackey’s Beautiful Passing, and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

Less-than-happy exposure to Colin Matthews’avant garde compositions back in the 1980s had made me avoid his music. I was, therefore, unsure of what to expect of his Debussy orchestrations, though his brother, David, also a major British composer, recently told me that Colin had mellowed in the intervening years. (The Matthews also achieved renown for their participation in the Cooke performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.)  I can only report my complete delight at his brilliant orchestral treatment of Debussy’s already attractive piano pieces.

available at Amazon
C.Matthews, The Debussy Preludes,
M.Elder / Hallé Orchestra
Hallé Discs 7527

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J.Sibelius, Symphony No.5,
L.Bernstein / NYPhil

Matthews has not aimed at creating a faux Debussy sound, but has achieved a highly colorful complete reimagining of these works. You can sense Debussy underneath, but now wrapped in a diaphanous gown that is so dazzling that you almost forget Debussy.  Matthews has done this without any sense of self-consciousness. The orchestrations do not shout: look at me! Rather, the music has a wonderful sense of innocent play, and even humor about it. Matthews has orchestrated all of the Préludes, and I will avidly seek out the rest of them.

These orchestrated Préludes demand a kind of pointillistic perfection in performance. It was ambitious of Lintu to schedule them for a NSO premiere and place them at the beginning of the program, but the NSO responded with playing of superb precision. All the chirping, twittering, burbling, and growling necessary was delivered with panache, as were the gorgeous, hushed string tones in the fourth piece for strings and harp alone. If everything seemed a bit louder than necessary, perhaps this was vital to maintain the marvelous transparency that Lintu and the NSO delivered.

Before playing the Mackey Violin Concerto (also a Washington premiere), violinist Leila Josefowicz took the microphone to give us a pep talk about Beautiful Passing. I always think this is a mistake, even though she did it in an engaging manner. It breaks through the fourth wall.  Shouldn’t the music be able to explicate itself in performance without our being told beforehand what it means? We can always read the program notes on our own, which I prefer to do after I have heard the work.  In this case, we were informed that the composition represents Mackey’s inner struggle over his mother’s death, for which he was present, and the process of death itself, most especially his mother’s gaining control over it to the extent to which she predicted the day of its arrival and announced to those present, “please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.”  It is about, we were told, “letting go.”

For any composer, it would be a huge challenge to capture such an experience.  Mackey divides his composition in two parts, with an intervening cadenza.  The first part is mayhem.  It sounds like Charles Ives let loose in a hospital ward for the terminally ill, with a lyrical violin line as the last redoubt of sanity.  Okay, I buy that: death as dissonance; things fall apart.  After the touching cadenza, the violin succeeds in taming the orchestra and gets it to play along. Toward the end a wild celebratory air ensues in “letting go”. Then the violin, alone, expires pianissimo. It is a surprising structure and treatment of its theme. Death does not blow everything apart; here, it brings it all together.

I can’t say that I found it musically convincing, though it would demand another hearing or three in order to make a decent judgment. It did, however, provoke the following thought: When three of Antonin Dvořák’s children died, he turned his grief into a Stabat Mater of extraordinary power and beauty—he ritualized it. Not for him, the actual depiction of the labored breathing of the dying person, which Mackey places at the beginning of his second part (not that there is anything wrong with this; in fact, it is effective).  The ritualization gives death context and meaning.  Without it, the raw matter of death is much harder to deal with.  I fully realize that Mackey was attempting to do this on his own without calling upon any tradition.  It is simply that, in the face of the magnitude of his subject matter, I do not think he fully succeeded.  I was not moved when I think I should have been. This was clearly not the fault of either Josefowicz or the NSO.

I confess I came to the concert primarily to hear Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. As he was composing it, Sibelius wrote, “I begin to see the mountain that I shall surely ascend. God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” When I first heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic many years ago, that is what I thought I heard. It changed my life. It lifted me so far outside of myself, I would never be the same. Sibelius grasped the harmony of the spheres and played it for us. I still can hardly contain myself when I listen to this performance on the re-mastered Sony release of the original 1961 recording.

This experience, of course, sets high expectations for concert performances—expectations that Lintu largely met. His was a clear-eyed rather than mystical approach, but it did not want in either power or subtlety.  It just might have been a bit more misterioso. The strings were outstanding throughout, but I was puzzled by the muted brass in the enunciation of the main theme where I should have liked more muscle.

The performance was well paced with the exception of part of the last movement, in which Lintu seemed to loosen his grip.  It was not enervating, but it was deflating at the least to the point that I would say that God only cracked his door open. But then I have often found the last movement to be lacking that majesty in concerts, even when the performance is perfectly fine, otherwise.

A noteworthy program all the same. It will be repeated tonight, January 13th, and Saturday evening, January 14th, both at 8 PM.