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We Need to Talk

 

By B.A. Nilsson

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 3

H ad you no knowledge of the story behind Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade, the music would remain compelling. Or so I hope. Good music doesn’t require a program to be effective, but it benefits from a social context.

Part of that is the concertgoing experience itself. We attend concerts, rather than exclusively listen to recordings, because we share the excitement of music being performed on the spot with an audience of like-minded others. When it comes to a concert program like the one played in Saratoga last Friday by the Philadelphia Orchestra, that’s about it.

It doesn’t feature in radio or television events, beyond ads or PSAs. What newspaper coverage it merits isn’t part of a conversation. I’m pleased that you’re interested enough in my opinion of the concert to read these three paragraphs, but I don’t expect to hear from you.

Classical music wasn’t always this rarefied. Bugs Bunny sang opera; the Lone Ranger rode to William Tell. The slow-movement theme from Brahms’ Double Concerto was used on Ford Television Theater and The Secret Storm.

And yet that slow movement, so lyrically sung by the violin-and-cello-playing brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, was one of the high points of a concert so expertly rendered that the baseline itself was already stratospheric.

It’s not just that it’s a world-class orchestra led by Charles Dutoit, a conductor they enjoy. It’s also the setting, as much for them as it is for us, and the soloists, and the chance to breathe new life into familiar repertory.

All it needs is an audience. So many of those brand-new seats yawned empty around us that it felt as if we’d wandered into a rehearsal. And that’s where the social context comes in.

At this point in time, pop culture isn’t going to court classical music. Its last hurrah was a De Beers commercial and some Stanley Kubrick films. People don’t gather around the water cooler to discuss the latest Simon Rattle recording. Preconcert talks are certainly welcome, and I enjoyed orchestra cellist Richard Harlow’s introductory remarks, but what about a post-concert get-together where we can compare our experiences?

Part of the problem is classical music’s education requirement. Like the world of wine, it rewards you as you learn more about it. We could discuss Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, but you really ought to know about classical symphonic ingredients, like the sonata-allegro form, to appreciate the composer’s impishness (nicely articulated by Dutoit in the concert’s opener as he kept the piece moving at a just-right pace).

The most enthusiastic group in the house was seated in the amphitheater’s rear, audience right, a group of young people from the School of Orchestral Studies, a summer program run by the New York State School Music Association in association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It’s a great gig for high-school-aged musicians, and the intermission chatter I overheard was lively and insightful.

I’d love to see SPAC put more young people in those seats, but I think that responsibility now lies with us. We need to create the social context by letting others know how important this is to us, and to create those gatherings at which concerts are discussed and recordings are shared.

I was fortunate as a teen to be enough of a pariah to attract fellow outcasts, and our gatherings included music as diverse as Fritz Reiner’s landmark Scheherazade (against which I’d place this Dutoit-led performance), Zappa’s Live at the Fillmore and Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert.

The steely intensity of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky version of the Brahms double first endeared that work to me, and probably ruined it, too, as I find most performances of it overly greased with forced romanticism. The Capuçon brothers—who individually played the hell out of two Tchaikovsky works last season—are just as dynamic as a pair, and have a slew of chamber-music recordings to prove that.

Their Brahms started with lyrical freedom, then swung into a driving, majestic groove, against which the evenly-paced slow movement contrasted nicely. The finale is like a train, steadily driving its bouncy theme through a series of confrontations with the orchestra.

Scheherazade can be bombastic and even silly, but tackle it with total conviction and it packs a wallop. It offers a showcase for solo violin, which concertmaster David Kim performed with his usual admirable sweetness and dexterity.

And so it was the kind of a concert that brings the audience to its feet, and compels you to talk about with others. That’s my current search, and I hope you’ll join the discussion. 

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