With A Perplexing Premiere, Love Becomes a Many Splintered Thing

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Baker, Shostakovich: Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 23.3.2013. (TW)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 (1806)
Claude Baker: Canti Guerrieri ed Amorosi (2012)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor(1937)

If there is a single idea that remains maddeningly entangled with my overall sense of this program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattdt Hall, it is that love is a many splintered thing. For it was largely love, in wildly diverse applications, which united the three works: Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Canti guerrieri ed amorosi (Songs of War and Love) by American composer Claude Baker (b. 1948), and Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. The evening was a stormy orchestral journey, some of it difficult to navigate, but in the end richly rewarding.

Not surprisingly, the performance of the Beethoven overture was utterly entrancing. With inspiring clarity, the orchestra embraced the work’s pathos and drama, encompassing both suffering and the resolute power of heroic love. After the Beethoven, and written specifically to commemorate the CSO’s 75th Anniversary, came the much touted world premiere of Claude Baker’s Canti guerrieri ed amorosi, created through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA Program. Considering the celebratory mood, I thought it reasonable to expect an emotionally compelling encounter—perhaps a joyful, accessible work that would showcase all the virtues of this great orchestra.

So much for lofty expectations. I do realize that “joy” and “accessibility” are subjective, and can be absent from many contemporary orchestral pieces. So I found this particular work to be an arduous conceptual exercise in sonic abstraction of a highly disaffecting sort. In this twenty minute-long, three-movement excursion into labyrinthine polyrhythms, tonal dissonances and relentlessly overlapping percussive textures, melody had left the building.

To be fair, Baker’s extensive program notes effectively illuminated the work’s intellectual thrust. Perhaps a fuller appreciation of its structural and aural complexities depends upon familiarity with the medieval and Renaissance vocal compositions (about love and war) that inspired them. Even so, Baker states that he focused his energies on a more visceral presentation of his source texts, as opposed to literal transcriptions of musical content. Consequently, melodic references to the Monteverdi madrigal, or the onomatopoetic song by Clement Janequin, for example, were minimal if discernible at all.

While challenging for the audience, it was all the more so for the orchestra. Every section played with an eerily robotic precision, coaxing bizarre sound effects from their instruments. Judging from the lukewarm audience reception, this sort of musical severity was far too subtle and perplexing to elicit anything like real affection. Love can indeed be a battlefield.

We live in an era of cultural tolerance (albeit begrudging at times) for even the most alienating musical experiences, but such was not the case for Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936 Moscow. He was severely denounced and blacklisted by Joseph Stalin for music that didn’t meet government “standards.” Shostakovich called his Fifth Symphony “…a Soviet artist’s practical, creative reply to just criticism.” Additionally, the composer’s explanation being about “joy of living” was just vague enough to regain his good standing, even though the work is now largely regarded not as an abject apology, but as a bittersweet and ironic skewering of pompous Socialist expectations.

While there is a sense of the composer’s deep love for his homeland threaded through this symphony, its inclusion here served as a brilliant vehicle for Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann to communicate his palpable love for the music itself, and the orchestra responded with tumultuous emotionality. This is certainly not to presume that the CSO was in any way unsupportive of, or unenthused by, the challenges of the Baker premiere, but simply to place the Shostakovich in the fresh context of a “practical, creative reply.”

And what a bedazzling reply it was! Here was the orchestra at its electrifying best, totally immersed in and committed to soaring expressivity. Even Zimmermann’s demeanor at the podium was especially animated, every gesture injecting the musicians with inexhaustible vigor and finesse.

As the roar of approval from the audience would testify, musical matters of the heart such as this one will trump cerebral experiments every time.

Tom Wachunas