WAR INSPIRES POWERFUL AND ELOQUENT MUSIC
By Lawrence Budmen
War has always drawn divergent reactions from creative artists. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) created very different musical portraits of war and battle. In the well ordered musical world of the 18th century (supported by the aristocracy), Haydn found a romanticized, celebratory, and martial tone for his most militaristic of symphonies. (In his "Mass In A Time of War" of 1796, Haydn seemed to take a more ambiguous view.) Shostakovich lived through the 900 day siege of the city of Leningrad by German forces during World War 2. That horrific experience found symphonic expression in a pair of emotionally searing works. These two very different composers' view of armed conflict were the musical bill of fare in "Of Strife and Struggle," a fascinating concert by the New World Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth on January 10, 2004 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach.
Haydn's "Symphony No.100 in G Major" ("Military") dates from the composer's second London residency in 1794. After years as court composer for the Esterhazy family, Haydn was greeted with adulation by British audiences during his visits between 1891 and 1895. The world had discovered a musical genius. Turkish Janissary music (with its triangles, cymbals, and gongs) was all the rage in the late 18th century. Its oddly exotic militaristic sound would influence Mozart, Beethoven, and many other composers. Haydn's recreation of these Turkish bands is both rousing and tinged with "Papa" Haydn's signature humor.
Wigglesworth and his talented musicians gave this masterpiece a rousing, effervescent performance. This was Haydn in the modern manner. Taut tempi, crisp attacks, and vigorous accents were the order of the day. String vibrato was used sparingly. The wind playing was bright toned and lithe. The trumpet fanfare (in the second movement Allegretto) resounded splendidly. Wigglesworth found exactly the right contrast between the restrained Adagio and the sparkling Allegro of the opening movement. The Allegretto was stately. The Janissary ensemble was never allowed to become blatant. The Minuet (Moderato) had just the right sparkle. The opera buffa elements of the Finale (Presto) were handled with verve. A delightful performance!
Wigglesworth is a formidable conductor. His command of the orchestra was awesome. He drew the entire range of expressive effects and dynamic gradations from the New World players. As a regular guest conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Wigglesworth is recording the complete Shostakovich symphonies. He led the New World forces in a performance of Shostakovich's "Symphony No.8 in C Minor," Opus 65 that would be hard to surpass.
Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony (1943) is based on events at Stalingrad during the Second World War - the climactic battle on the Russian front. The composer creates a painful, harrowing musical portrait of war and suffering. Fear and violence are given piercing musical voice. The symphony concludes with a deeply moving eulogy for the dead that fades away into silence. Shostakovich is at his most moving in the Largo (Passacaglia) where he gives heartfelt emotional voice to the sorrow of violence.
Wigglesworth is a deeply eloquent Shostakovich interpreter. He maintained incredible tension and power throughout the lengthy opening Adagio movement. The elongated English horn solo (a musical harbinger of tragedy) was beautifully played and eloquently phrased by Karen Burch. Her large, gorgeous tone and musical sensitivity held the audience spellbound. The thunderbolts of the Allegretto were delineated with smashing fury. Wigglesworth captured the terror of the Allegro non troppo. The thematic figure seemed to gain power and anxiety with each repetition. (Long before minimalism became fashionable in music, Shostakovich used continued repetition of a single subject as a powerful musical weapon.) The searing emotional outpouring of the Largo was deeply eloquent under Wigglesworth's masterful baton. The richly expressive string playing and colorful, clear toned wind solos were memorable. Wigglesworth built the concluding Allegretto to an overwhelming climax. He shaped the moving coda spaciously with throbbing intensity. The wistful violin and cello solos were beautiful. Wigglesworth not only unleashed the power of the full orchestra (with its extra brass and percussion volleys) but brought wonderful tenderness and beauty to the many soft passages. (He obtained a true pianissimo from his players - a rare orchestral occurrence.) A great symphony in a magnificent performance!
The combination of Haydn and Shostakovich in their musical responses to war was unforgettable. The New World Symphony has rarely sounded better. It was wonderful to encounter a fiercely committed, deeply probing conductor (Mark Wigglesworth). A great concert and a musical high water mark!