Where the Music Takes You (or Don’t Let the Music Talk Politics)

ItalyItaly Beethoven, Dvorak, Khachaturian. Filarmonica della Scala, conductor, Daniel Harding, Alessandro Taverna (piano). A Santa Cecilia concert at Sala Sinopoli, Parco della Musica Rome as part of the With You Armenia Centennial  05-09-2015 (JB)

Beethoven began by seeing where the music would take him –an almost laid-back approach, as though to get out of the way of the music; later as his physical ear became enfeebled and his inner ear struggled with a new creativity of sound unequaled in music’s history, there is the feeling of the composer being firmly in the driver’s seat, even, and some would say especially, when that seat was uncomfortable.

The third piano concerto belongs enchantingly to that early, let’s-wait-and-see period.  There is a distinct feeling that that first tune that the strings give out at the beginning of the first movement, which is more of a fragment than an actual tune, invites the composer, conductor and pianist to get-out-of-the-way and just hear to where the fragment will lead.

I wish that I could tell you that pianist, Alessandro Taverna and conductor, Daniel Harding, were alive to Beethoven’s exquisitely understated jewel.  They weren’t.  They turned the concerto into an overblown melodrama.  Misguided as their choice was, there was a possible rationale to their folly, which I had better try to explain.  This requires an Armenian digression.

The concert, presented by Santa Cecilia, was to mark the centenary of the 1915 Genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks.  This was the world’s first genocide and the first time that term was used.  Turkey has never accepted the application of the word, even today.  But genocide it certainly was.  An estimated million and a half Armenians were force-marched into the Syrian desert and starved to death or murdered. (The population of today’s Armenia is just under three million. More than double that number form a global diaspora.)

Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world and the first to have made Christianity a state religion, ten years ahead of Rome.   The Armenian churches to be seen today in what is now eastern Turkey, had their sublime frescoes covered over in plaster as some were turned into mosques during the genocide.  In a notable change of heart during the seventies, the Turks invited the British Byzantine scholar, David Talbot Rice, and his Russian wife (also a Byzantine art expert) to carefully remove the plaster and reveal the original Christian art in all its striking simplicity.  This is one of eastern Turkey’s best tourist attractions including the hauntingly beautiful ruins of the Armenian city of Ani.

The Metropolitan of the orthodox Armenian Church now has his palace just outside Yerevan, the present capital.  I first visited this city in the nineties, taking a mini bus from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.  It was August and hot.  The drive through the mountains was spectacular but long.  It was late when I checked into the hotel.  Next morning when I undrew the curtains I was astonished to discover Mount Ararat straight in front of me.  This is the Armenian sacred mountain where Noah is said to have made his ark.   I had often visited it from the Turkish side but had understood that it had been lost to the Armenians.  And indeed it had.  The nearness was illusory.  But the illusion was so forceful I had to ask the chambermaid if I really was looking at Ararat!

Sala Sinopoli, with about one thousand, two hundred seats, is about half of Sala Santa Cecilia; but all the seats were taken.  And most of them by Armenians.  I had no idea there were so many of them in Rome.  (Their small Rome embassy had been friendly and helpful when I had applied for a visa.) But the much smaller platform in the Sinopoli was uncomfortably overcrowded with the La Scala Filarmonica (double wind, percussion and strings at 10:10:8:8:6 for the Dvorak eighth).  Understandably, the acoustic was not friendly to the performance.  It added to the War which Harding and Taverna had declared on behalf of the Armenian cause and to which the entire audience was sympathetic.  But this turns the evening into a political statement rather than a concert.  Another programme would have been needed to make that work.

The Dvorak eighth symphony fared a little better, though the forces required to play it meant the hall could not cope with such a volley of sound.  All the same, Dvorak’s nationalism comes through in this work more than almost any other with folksy sounding lyricism and Czech dance rhythms.  And Maestro Harding had the good sense here to lighten up on the music’s never overstated political implications.

Best of all was the circus-like Waltz from Khachaturian’s ballet, Masquerade.  An end with some fun with the bass tuba’s mocking um-pa-pa accompaniment.  Laughter and applause all round.

Jack Buckley

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