Orpheus Ascending

by DAVID YEARSLEY

The main purpose of importing exotic elements into “serious” music has always been to provide a safe way for the uptight to explore modes of expression that would otherwise be the object of censure from moralists and aesthetic policemen. Imagine Brahms not ensconced in his study with a score of a Beethoven symphony in his lap and the portrait of Bismarck looking austerely but approvingly down over the top of the armchair. Instead picture Old Johannes on the outskirts of Vienna, his face aglow from the nearby campfire in the midst of a Gypsy caravan, his high collar unbuttoned and his beard stained with red wine, dancing like he’s never danced before. A Romani fiddler plays with the abandonment Johannes has long craved but never indulged in until now. A dark-eyed woman reaches for the composer’s bottom waistcoat button. He no longer cares if he’s great or even good. Back in the study, the Iron Chancellor’s frown deepens.

What Brahms has just bought is a one-way ticket to total debauchery and ultimate ruin, that same disastrous itinerary brilliantly captured in Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat and subsequently immortalized on the screen by Emil Janning’s in The Blue Angel. It is no coincidence that music is also the ultimate seductress in that film, the lure of exotic cabaret emanating from the throat, indeed from the whole person (“From head to toe, I’m made for love”) of Marlene Dietrich’s scandalous chanteuse.

No sphere was more vigorously patrolled than the nineteenth-century concert hall, so often built in the style of Greek temples. Such architectural ideals helped ensure that decorum would prevail within these hallowed spaces, that the Apollonian would triumph over the Dionysian.  Whereas the loges of the eighteenth-century opera house had hosted sensual excesses culinary and carnal, in the later concert halls of northern Europe propriety would prevail: no movement, not even the tapping of a foot was to be allowed. When unruly musical elements were smuggled in, for example, the Trojan Horse of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem, Don Juan, the leading critic Eduard Hanslick decried its “sensual pathological effect”; the piece was a dangerous “musical narcotic” that led to “voluptuous shudders.”

In light of such puritanical strictures and suppressed desires, the value of Gypsy music in concert music becomes obvious, the strategy of its appropriation transparent: use the “devil’s music” as an excuse to live it up at last. But use it also to escape charges of degeneracy by displacing your own urges onto the Other—the very musicians whose style is so alluring, but who themselves are banned not only from playing in polite settings but can’t even afford to come to the concert.

Vast are the number of warhorse violin works written in the gypsy style like Pablo Sarasate’s Ziegeunerweisen and Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. The message is clear: however infectious this music may be, the right people would never really live that way. The virtuosic extremes and wailing laments could be contained by the middle-class propriety enforced by the concert as an institution. While it might be expected that Liszt (he of the Hungarian Rhapsodies) would fall willing victim to bad taste, even the unimpeachable Brahms could unshackle himself from the chains of probity when imitating, or even mocking, at a safe distance a version of gypsy music.

What is undeniable is the lasting appeal of the style, at no time of the year more so than at the end of a long Upstate New York Winter. The Gypsy fiddler is an ecologically sustainable way of raising the body temperature; perhaps his music is the ultimate answer to all our energy needs. Forget the prospect of harnessing those vicious North Winds gusting down the length of Lake Cayuga to the bluffs on which looms Cornell University. Instead, bring in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on an arctic evening and have the group present a program of “Gypsy-inspired” works in venerable Bailey Hall, its austere colonnade meant to establish the kind of European credentials still expected for classical music when the place was built at the beginning of the last century.

In the “inclusive” environment of the present age such music is probably thought of less as subversive than as politically incorrect, and not just because of the use of the G-word. One could nowadays ask if a persecuted minority is being ridiculed on stage in a cultural form—the orchestral concert—that has long been both a symbol and a practical expression of hegemonic exclusion.

Whether one wants to ponder such questions or not, that fact is that it is huge fun watching and hearing a violinist go berserk on his fiddle. That uncommon, if still guilty pleasure, was withheld the Bailey Hall audience until the second half of the Orpheus’s program.  Before embracing the nineteenth-century’s fascination with gypsy display, the ensemble played two works by native Hungarians of the twentieth century.

Zoltán Kodály’s Hungarian Rondo was first performed in Vienna in January of 1918 in the last year of World War I. Perhaps in response to that catastrophe the work, whose main theme is a well-known Hungarian soldier’s song, is warm, even comforting. With its unbalanced phrases and resistance to tonal closure, the melody is typical of Magyar music and has an exotic effect when heard by Western European ears.

Founded in 1972, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is noted for its collaborative approach to interpretation, even taking the radical step of dispensing with the conductor altogether.  The orchestra’s nuanced approach to music making elevates “chamber” above “orchestra”; one has the sense that each member is listening to all his or her colleagues. The group moves and breathes and shapes musical sound with precision, but also with a fluidity that produces an excitement and spontaneity very different from that generated by the imperious motions of a silent but stormy conductor.  This is not at all to say the group lacks fire. The whirling dervish country dance built into the Kodály’s Rondo could not have been more rousing, nor the slightly sentimental reverie of the main theme shaped with more feeling, indeed so lovingly that it at times risked becoming cloying—almost like being hugged by thickly-perfumed great aunt. Nationalistic affirmation in the midst of war can be dangerous aesthetic territory.

Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra was premiered in 1940 in the first year of World War II in neutral Basel; the composer would die in September of 1945 just after the conclusion of the war. Bartók himself praised Kodály as “the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit.” But where Kodály’s wartime Rondo is bright and encouraging, Bartók’s Divertimento is dark and foreboding. Its chugging opening sounds to me like the war-machine moving inexorably into high gear. Against the locomotive backdrop of the lower strings, the first violins twist downward through a pair of melodic swipes of a minor third from F to D, then E-flat to C. It’s a kind of angular, almost bluesy turn that is both colorful and unsettling.  While capturing the spice of this line, the Orpheus kept a firm hand on the throttle, sometimes pushing forward sometimes back. Collective interpretation does not mean autopilot: in the Orpheus’s hands this difficult, demanding music changes, pulses, resists—and relinquishes signs of hope, even joy along the way.

The group made the serpentine opening of the Molto adagio middle movement subdued and insinuating. Furtive lower textures sounded like bees in their hive, tremendously organized in a purpose that is nonetheless obscure to the observer. Above these seethings, the high strings flew in furtive arabesques, like mosquito melodies detected from far off, subliminal and threatening, then tracing a question mark off into silence.

The jocular games of the final movement and the tempestuous Beethovenian fugal forays do not allay the fears that haunt the piece. The frenetic conclusion with the outer parts fleeing from one another in contrary motion to final staccato Fs sounds anything but stable and suggests to me the impossibility of escape from the cataclysm. Never was a divertimento less diverting.

After the intermission German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave a thrilling performance of Joseph Joachim’s dauntingly difficult Concerto no. 2, in the Hungarian Style.  The greatest virtuoso of the second half of the nineteenth century, Joachim premiered both the Brahms and Bruch concertos, and wrote three of his own.  In October of last year I had the pleasure of hearing the Tetzlaff Quartet play Haydn, Berg and Beethoven.  In the medium of the string quartet Tetzlaff himself was utterly convincing in the subtlety, nuance, and intimacy of his playing.  But for the feared Joachim concerto it was all about the big gesture, the slashing maneuvers of survival and glory against the non-stop pressure applied to the soloist by this harrowing piece.

Even in the formal setting of an orchestral concert, Tetzlaff has something of the rebel about him. He sported a rakish goatee, a dark suit and v-neck t-shirt: no buttons to be buttoned up for this exercise in unbounded display.

The ominous timpani of the orchestral introduction portend mortal combat between soloist and orchestra: this is music in need of a hero. Chromatic inflections outside the stormy key of D minor conjure the Hungarian style and set the stage for the waves of melody, hailstorms of octaves and passagework to come from the fearless violinist. Tetzlaff can whip a lion-sized roar from his fiddle when he has to, but also spurs it to vast lyricism. One could practically feel the atmospheric pressure fall suddenly when a thousand jaws dropped at Tetzlaff’s screaming arpeggios rocketing up to an impossibly high note held out against the incursions of the orchestra.

In the middle movement Romanze, Joachim wisely ratcheted back on the intensity, though what is to come is suggested by the increasing embroidery lavished on his restrained opening theme. Still, the insanely fast perpetual motion of the electric final movement alla Zingara (in the “gypsy style”) comes as a shock. It is as wild a ride as you’ll ever take in a concert hall, the violinist’s bow bouncing madly across the strings, slashing through chords, laying waste to every challenge. The music is so riveting not least because the slightest misstep means disaster. Stamping occasionally as he parried a renewed threat or perhaps was overcome by the physical power of the music, Tetzlaff appeared not even to break a sweat.

After the victorious conclusion of the concerto the standing ovation was immediate, and elicited an encore romp through Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 17, to the further amazement and delight of the audience. Even in the force field of such irrepressible energy, the audience dutifully sat back down rather than break into spontaneous dancing.

Doubtless the same well-regulated behavior will obtain for the next Cornell concert when Romani violinist Roby Lakatos comes to Bailey Hall at the end of April. Even if he is the real thing, Lakatos will have a hard time matching the feats of Tetzlaff and the Orpheus, driven by Gypsy music, however “inauthentic,” to very real rewards. They let themselves go but never fell down.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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