Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Celebrating a Halloween Classic and Its Enigmatic Composer

Today’s Halloween month installment revisits an iconic piece from the creepy classical repertoire: French early Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. It’s been recorded to death (ouch, sorry), and strangely, it doesn’t seem to be represented in concert here in New York this month. But there’s a Utah Symphony recording worth hearing, if 19th century phantasmagoria is your thing – and if this album ever makes it to the web. For the moment, here’s a 1951 New York Philharmonic performance with maestro Dmitri Mitropoulos.

Conductor Thierry Fischer leads the Salt Lake City ensemble through a colorful, careening, deliciously inspired take. Madeline Adkins’ solo violin is jagged, almost haphazard, the simmer underneath is mutedly evil and the group are obviously having a great time with the gleeful grimness of this quasi-tarantella.

The rest of the record holds up robustly. The composer’s Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55 opens with a series of spot-on, momentary solos from oboe, violin, bassoon and clarinet, introducing a slashing chromatic theme. The riffs are short, sharp, Mozartean, the orchestra pulsing tightly underneath. Saint-Saens was a prickly guy and didn’t do himself any favors for the sake of posterity, but this isn’t shalllow music, and the orchestra completely get that. It’s a clinic in classical composition.

The concise, contrapuntal phrasing of the second movement is more warmly crepuscular and early 19th century, closer to, say, Beethoven’s Sixth. Fischer lets the dogs out to leap and waltz around the wry, momentary solo passages of the third, then the orchestra go racing, lickety-split through the jaunty concentric circles of the finale. Still, conceptually, wouldn’t it have been a whole lot more interesting if Saint-Saens had rolled with the menace inherent in the opening movement? Maybe eschewing that was a commercial move, figuring that there’s only so much macabre an audience can take.

The opening of the other symphony here, No. 2 in F, “Urbs Roma” has been ripped off for plenty of pop songs over the years. It’s surprising that the tumbling pageantry of the second movement and the troubled Mitteleuroepean gothic of the third haven’t also been plundered. The album’s liner notes witheringly quote Claude Debussy as saying that Saint-Saens – who’d trashed the debut of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn – once showed promise of becoming a great composer. Whatever you think of his music – his endless volleys of orchestral counterpoint, his grandiose, Lisztian piano concertos, his irresistible Organ Symphony and perhaps shockingly poignant solo organ works – you can’t deny his gift for pure entertainment. Once again, Fischer gets that, and so does this orchestra.

October 15, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World-Class Symphonic Grandeur From an Unlikely Spot

Playing devil’s advocate, here’s how Roger Nichols introduces the liner notes for the Utah Symphony’s sumptuous new recording of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: ”Igor Stravinsky remembered Saint-Saëns as ‘a sharp little man’, demonstrably unimpressed by the sounds emanating from the orchestra in The Rite of Spring. Succeeding generations have perpetuated this view of Saint-Saëns as a carping pedant, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who excelled in providing music that was all surface and little content.”

#gutpunch.

Nichols quickly goes on to explain how that perception is only part of the picture. In the days when it was even more customary (and often necessary) for composers to rely on commissions from the entitled classes to pay the rent, guys like Saint-Saëns would churn out one predictably cheery, cliched score after another. After all, the landed gentry of 1880s France had no more interest in anything challenging or cutting edge than the tattooed newcomers to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy do now. But as anybody who’s heard Carnival of the Animals or Danse Macabre – each written for Saint-Saëns’ family – will agree, there’s a whole different side to his work.

This is a rare recording – streaming at Spotify – where the shorter pieces on the program actually upstage the centerpiece. Conductor Thierry Fischer and the ensemble give Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 every bit of opulent ostentatiousness it deserves, a fullscale orchestral work supercharged with both organ and piano, the icing on a many-layered sonic cake. As classical party music goes, this is about as good as it gets. Recorded live in concert just over a year ago on the group’s home turf, the sound quality is magnificent. Solos throughout the orchestra, from James Hall’s oboe to Louise Vickerman’s harp, are precise and emphatic. Exchanges between various sections of the group are seamless, and the dynamics cover as much ground as a symphonic ensemble possibly can. And the hooks come at you, over and over again: just when you’re humming one, another will jump in and displace it.

The performance of the composer’s only slightly less lavish 1909 suite Trois Tableaux Symphoniques d’Après La Foi is even more of a thrill. If less ambitiously than Bartok, Saint-Saëns by then had fallen under the spell of North African music. While this is limited to what fans of Middle Eastern sounds cynically call “Hollywood hijaz,” the French Romantic was obviously feeding off a big jolt of inspiration and that translates to the orchestra here. Its cinematic vistas may be comfortable and predictably catchy, but they’re hardly shallow. And the wistful finale has poignancy to rival anything Samuel Barber ever wrote. The orchestra follow by stampeding through the chromatics of the famous Bacchanale from the opera Samson & Delilah, every single click of the castanets fired off with relish.

Over the years, the people of the state of Utah haven’t done themselves any favors by pulling stunts like withdrawing from the Boy Scouts of America since girls are allowed to join Scout troops now (you’d think that it would be the other way around, that all the boys would want to join the Girl Scouts for the sake of the enormous profits in selling cookies, but that’s a topic for another time). Rather than reinforcing any regional preconceptions, this album reminds how great art sometimes flourishes in unlikely places. Put this on your playlist along with the best-ever recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra…if you can find it.

December 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment