19 December 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, & Copland — SYMPHONY NO. 9, 1812 OVERTURE, & FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN (Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, 16 December 2021)

IN REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven's SYMPHONY NO. 9, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 OVERTURE, & Aaron Copland's FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN - Greensboro Symphony, 16 December 2021 [Image © by Greensboro Symphony Orchestra]LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827), PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893), and AARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990): Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 (‘Choral’), 1812 Overture, Opus 49, and Fanfare for the Common ManLyubov Petrova (soprano), Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Marcus DeLoach (baritone); Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale, Greensboro Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor [Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 16 December 2021]

Of the many cancellations and postponements perpetrated by COVID-19, few can have been more disappointing to music lovers than those of celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. It seems sadly appropriate for this anniversary to have fallen during a time of global crisis. No stranger to physical maladies and social upheaval. Beethoven lived in a world in which one century’s enlightenment was supplanted by a new era’s incongruous tenets of Romanticized idealism and pragmatic conservatism. His was the time of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Franz Grillparzer, Friedrich von Schiller, and Sir Walter Scott—and also of Klemens von Metternich, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, and the first Duke of Wellington.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to regard Beethoven’s enduring importance and influence as inflated. As communities throughout the world have grappled with vital questions about racial discrimination, economic privilege, sexuality, and gender paradigms, the continued relevance of Beethoven’s music and the legitimacy of its prominence in the international repertoire have been challenged and in some instances declared to be products of systemic prejudice and cultural narrowmindedness. It cannot be denied that, in Art as in all aspects of human existence, deprivation is an inevitable casualty of choice. Works by lesser-known composers of all ethnicities are collateral damage of decisions to perform, publish, or record music by Beethoven. Though he worked in an epoch in which the making of art still largely relied upon aristocratic patronage, Beethoven would surely denounce the elitism that uses his music to obscure other composers’ music.

The abiding atmosphere of Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s concert honoring the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, rescheduled to the 251st anniversary in response to COVID-19, was one of revitalization, not rehabilitation. The orchestra’s inaugural performance in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the concert intensified appreciation of the resilience that, having been so integral a component of Beethoven’s life, resounds in his music. The irrepressible joy of performing filled the auditorium and assumed even greater significance by contrasting with the grim milestone of the loss of 800,000 American lives to COVID-19. His life plagued by catastrophic wars and personal tragedies, Beethoven repeatedly faced loss, the effects of which suffuse his music. Conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Greensboro Symphony’s concert extolled the progressive essence of his work, presenting both his music and works that bear hallmarks of Beethoven’s influence without agendas or idiosyncrasies.

Beginning GSO’s observance of the Beethoven sestercentennial with Aaron Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man was a logical nod to the inspiration that Beethoven’s artistic ingenuity has been throughout the two centuries since his death in 1827. Copland’s writing for brass demonstrates unmistakable kinship with Beethoven’s music for winds in works like the Leonore and Egmont Overtures and Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. The nerves of the grand occasion intermittently undermined the GSO brass players’ intonation, jeopardizing the impact of Copland’s portentous flourishes. Nevertheless, Sitkovetsky and the musicians movingly imparted the Fanfare’s simple majesty​, paying homage to the common man with uncommon eloquence.

So widespread was the popularity of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 49 The Year 1812 Solemn Overture within a few years of the piece’s 1882 première in Moscow that its famously sensitive, self-critical composer expressed regret for having written it. First performed to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of tsarist Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, the Overture overcame its creator’s disapprobation to claim a central place in many orchestras’ repertoires for festive events. As GSO’s performance affirmed, the Overture’s continued currency is attributable in no small part to its memorable melodies, cleverly interwoven by Tchaikovsky to fashion one of Western culture’s most identifiably programmatic pieces. Sitkovetsky devoted obvious care to cleanly articulating the contrapuntal intricacies of Tchaikovsky’s writing without making the performance an academic exercise. Brass statements of the Overture’s familiar battle subject and the ‘Marseillaise’ lacked consistent security but generated requisite excitement. The scurrying string figurations depicting the French retreat from Moscow were brilliantly rendered. The grandeur of the music was well served, but Sitkovetsky did not allow the reading to stall in august passages. The tubular chimes’ portrayal of Moscow’s church bells was wonderfully vibrant in Tanger Center’s acoustic, resolving Tchaikovsky’s paean to his ancestors’ valor with rousing splendor.

Composition of his Ninth Symphony dominated Beethoven’s creative endeavors for nearly eighteen months, spanning all of 1823, the year in which he also completed his monumental Missa solemnis. At the time of its first performance on 7 May 1824, secured for Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor only after prominent Viennese musicians and patrons of the Arts lobbied the disenfranchised composer to abandon a plan to stage the Symphony’s première in Berlin, the Ninth Symphony employed the largest musical forces heard in the genre to that time. In the pages of Beethoven’s score, past and future intersect, the symphonic styles of Mozart and Mahler directly linked. The setting of Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’ with which the Symphony ends is propelled by a melody, now often deemed banal, that captivates listeners as readily in the Twenty-First Century as in 1824. GSO’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was truly an ode to joy, recovery, and optimism.

Sitkovetsky is an undemonstrative but undeniably effective conductor whose pacing of Beethoven’s music in this performance at times recalled the very different qualities that Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Yevgeny Mravinsky brought to their conducting of Beethoven symphonies. In the opening Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso movement, Sitkovetsky accentuated the novelty of the part writing by encouraging the orchestra to play with crispness that lent the Symphony’s first bars Stravinsky-like harmonic ambiguity. Furtwängler’s legacy was evident in Sitkovetsky’s concentration on the ways in which subtle transitions of tempo drive the music. Contrapuntal expositions wielded seeming spontaneity, but each thematic journey progressed towards a finite destination. Fleeting insecurities in the orchestra’s playing of the Copland and Tchaikovsky pieces were largely absent from their performance of the Ninth Symphony, the musicians perceptibly engaged by the conductor’s goal of allowing Beethoven’s score to reveal its innovation and modernity on its own terms.

The timpani strokes that punctuate the Molto vivace movement were all the more exhilarating for being meticulously cued and sounded with unerring precision. The tumultuous energy of the music was limned by the intensity of the orchestra’s playing rather than exaggerated tempi and dynamics. As in the first movement, the music’s fugal elements were rendered with gravity, the heritage of Bach and Händel omnipresent but never oppressive. Moderation was the distinguishing characteristic of Sitkovetsky’s conducting, the orchestra’s full force reserved for those passages in which Beethoven instructed that it should be deployed. The conductor’s navigations of the abrupt shifts of momentum showed interpretive individuality that stopped short of sacrificing fidelity to the composer’s markings to creating a distinctly personal account of the Symphony.. Each musician on the Tanger Center stage approached the piece with unique perspectives, but, in even the most frenetic moments of the Molto vivace, this indisputably remained a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony.

Like Toscanini, Sitkovetsky savored the lyricism of the Adagio molto e cantabile whilst sustaining rhythmic exactness. Approaching this music as a tranquil respite from the turmoil of the Symphony’s outer movements, the conductor sculpted melodic arcs with subtlety, the interplay among instruments emerging organically from the writing. The string playing was at once rich and diaphanous, the bright patina of the violins’ high register floated above the churning lower winds. Beethoven’s tone painting evokes images of the natural world into which he often retreated, the music undulating like the Danube as it meanders through Vienna and rustling as the breezes caress the Wienerwald. In this performance, Sitkovetsky guided the listener on a trek through these scenes, so beloved by Beethoven, heightening the expressive potency of the music. Woodwind playing was superb throughout the performance but was truly magical in the Adagio molto e cantabile, in which wind textures are reminiscent of those in the slow movements of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony. Still, the triumph of Sitkovetsky’s conducting was finding rather than forcing the music’s emotions.

Conductors’ reputations cannot bring them safely through the gauntlet of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale. In some performances, the recapitulations of subjects heard in the first three movements are wrongheadedly metamorphosed into a sort of miniature Wagnerian music drama, and the Symphpny’s final minutes are blared like political propaganda. Sitkovetsky avoided these missteps by perpetuating his dedication to following the music’s narrative without imposing his own subtexts on it. Above all, Sitkovetsky shared Mravinsky’s realization of the fact that, when conducting music as iconic as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, tradition is not the enemy of originality.

Aided by the conductor’s intelligent handling of the score and the orchestra’s best playing of the evening, GSO’s vocal soloists further increased the success of the performance, mastering music that fuses bel canto with the Romantic idiom of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner. Baritone Marcus DeLoach declaimed the recitative ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ stirringly and phrased ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium’ with exuberance. Achieving an ideal balance between vocal power and poetic sensitivity, tenor Rodrick Dixon sang ‘Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen’ boldly, rising fearlessly to the top B♭s. Mezzo-soprano (and Burlington native) Nancy Maultsby sang strongly and, more rarely in performances of the Ninth Symphony, always audibly, enunciating text with clear diction and cognizance of the meaning of the words. No announcement was made, but soprano Lyubov Petrova was audibly indisposed, cautiously avoiding many of the highest tones, most notably the pair of climactic top Bs in the soloists’ concertato on ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder.’ She bravely attempted the plethora of top As, however, only slight shrillness betraying her vocal estate. She, too, projected the text vividly, earning admiration for a valiant performance.

The twenty-five minutes of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale contain choral writing of unrelenting difficulty, encompassing reverent recollections of Händel’s oratorios and anticipations of the Masses and motets of Anton Bruckner. It is no coincidence that, in the Ninth Symphony’s discography, the finest performances are frequently those with the best choirs. This Greensboro performance introduced the Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale, an ensemble under the direction of Jonathan Emmons and James Keith that on this evening proved to be an immense gift to this performance and to the Triad community. There is something strangely touching about observing choristers singing as affectingly as GSO’s Master Chorale sang whilst masked, this small victory of will symbolizing the tenacity of the Performing Arts. Balances among the voices were nearly ideal. The differentiations of piano and pianissimo in the Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto ‘Ihr stürtz nieder’ could have been more pronounced, but the voices filled the hall with sounds of compelling beauty and consequence, prompting hope that a future Greensboro Symphony season will include performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Beethoven wrote in January 1804, twenty years before the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, that ‘Musik ist wie ein Traum. Einer, den ich nicht hören’—‘Music is like a dream. One that I cannot hear.’ The cruelty of a man whose life was devoted to music being deprived of the ability to hear it is devastating, but Beethoven persevered, listening with his heart when his ears failed him. Bettering an hour in which today’s world faces uncertainty similar to what Beethoven must have felt two centuries ago, Greensboro Sumphony’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was a dream of​ rejoicing in a night of despair.

08 December 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Marshall Deerfield — TRAVEL BY HAIKU: VOLUMES 6 – 10, FAR OUT ON THE ROAD WITH FRIENDS (A Freedom Books, ISBN 978-0998425832)

IN REVIEW: Marshall Deerfield - TRAVEL BY HAIKU: VOLUMES 6 - 10, FAR OUT ON THE ROAD WITH FRIENDS (A Freedom Books, ISBN 978-0998425832)MARSHALL DEERFIELD (born 1987): Travel by Haiku: Volumes 6 – 10, Far Out on the Road with Friends [A Freedom Books, 31 March 2021; 149 pages; ISBN 978-0998425832; Available from the author and Amazon]

Since the continent’s indigenous peoples first relayed their lores orally, America’s poets have continually confronted two questions: what is poetry, and what is its rôle in the American way of life? For Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks, poetry was an instrument of social equality. For Zitkála-Šá, Miguel Algarín, and Toshio Mori, it was the cry of the marginalized. For Emily Dickinson, it was an act of defiance. For Walt Whitman, poetry was the spirit of America; sometimes rough, sometimes refined, always indomitably original. America’s poetry has also been shaped by the endeavors of populists, poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Frost, whose verses perpetuate the genre by appealing to readers who might otherwise reject poetry.

Poetry in Twenty-First-Century America has expanded into new dimensions that not even Edgar Allan Poe at his most inventive could have envisioned, rendering the question of what constitutes poetry irrelevant and debilitating. If the heart of poetry is rhythm, what is not inherently poetic? Song lyrics, social media posts, the sounds of rain upon windows, and the coursing of blood through veins are their own kinds of poetry; actions, reactions, and interactions that can be replicated in words.

Celebration of poetry as the art of verbalizing life’s triumphs and trivialities is a cornerstone of Volumes Six through Ten of Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku, a collaborative collection of poetry and prose musings that, as the book’s subtitle intimates, commemorates adventures ‘far out on the road with friends.’ Encompassing the work of writers as dissimilar as Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, the travelogue is a pillar of the American literary canon, but Travel by Haiku reshapes the models of Roughing It and On the Road into a composition of individuality that advances revered traditions into a new era of heightened awareness of the significance of words.

It is fitting that Deerfield—the nom de plume of Marshall James Kavanaugh—​is based in Philadelphia. That city’s long embodiment of American ideals of liberty and innovation permeates every word of Deerfield’s writing, which in this edition of Travel by Haiku manifests a stream-of-consciousness style that is at once reminiscent of the William Faulkner of ‘Barn Burning’ and ‘Mountain Victory’ and strikingly original. An integral element of Deerfield’s poetic aesthetic is a focus on the psychological nuances of words and the subjects that they portray. There are numerous passages in which, in terms of both language and the book’s visual presentation, the words are tasked not with creating poetry but with translating natural and human landscapes into language. Deerfield shares with Ernest Hemingway a gift for producing writing that is accessible but impregnated with emotional intricacies.

Written in collaboration with Augustus Depenbrock, Travel by Haiku’s sixth volume, Desert Jesters Swim In Ancient Seas, begins with an evocation of the vastness of the American continent, ‘A wide open space / empty except for two guys.’ Inspired by a journey through the desolate Big Bend of southwestern Texas, the volume is characterized by use of imagery that fills the reader with an unsettling perception of the remoteness of the Trans-Pecos region. Each of these five volumes of Travel by Haiku is imbued with sobering cognizance of man’s cruel intrusions into nature’s order, metaphorically expressed in Desert Jesters Swim In Ancient Seas with lines like ‘Hungry cops trying to catch you with your pants down / prowling the whole two blocks of town.’ [Emphases and italicizations in quoted passages appear here as they are in the book, but total fidelity to the poet’s spatial arrangements of texts regrettably is not possible.] The specter of man’s inhumanity haunts the texts with phantasmagoric specificity, each haiku aimed like a weapon at readers’ misconceptions about progress and Romanticized notions of the American frontier.

Further developing a theme introduced in the previous volume, Volume Seven, Scavenger Poets Tell Their Tales, continues the book’s unsparing explication of the dichotomy of rural and urban settings. Treated as a microcosmic representation of the class warfare that splinters modern society, the disorienting ambiguities of modern Texas suffuse lines including ‘Mellow vibes / A little retreat into an Austin oasis / reggae ghetto / blaster is full throttle’ with stark expressive impact. Occasionally, over-reliance upon colloquialisms, perhaps resulting from the involvement and integration of multiple poetic sensibilities, compromises the universality of the book’s narrative, but Deerfield invariably capitalizes on the vivid tableaux conjured by familiar phrases.

Here I am, take me to your leader and bring me to your artsy dive bars in a basket of old laundry and cowboy hats.

Words like these engender an atmosphere of ruggedness that contrasts markedly with humorous episodes like that of a fugitive penny seeming to have been dislodged from a rectal sanctuary. No other line epitomizes the prevailing ethos of Travel by Haiku as succinctly as that in which Deerfield writes that his goal is to ‘play a show to the passing flow.’ There is Shakespearean gravitas in this jingoistic suggestion of one man’s life being mere entertainment for a world that scarcely notices.

The scenic marvels of a voyage from Los Angeles to Seattle are mirrored in the language of Travel by Haiku’s eighth volume, Tree Clowns Climb High, Onwards & Outwards. Joined on his physical and poetical traversals of America’s Pacific coast by Shane Donnelly and Tara Lynn Faith Williamson, Deerfield intensifies his scrutiny of the conflicts between the natural and unnatural worlds, employing diction to illustrate the widening chasm between man and his surroundings. ‘Nothing is absent / eyes open to simple truths / welcome to the frontier,’ the poets opine, proposing that, for too many observers, a plane of existence without artifice is unfamiliar territory. The bond between man and earth resounds in the lines ‘Ancient melodies from trees, / haunted night spirits / amongst us and within us,’ redolent of the cacophonous sylvan sound world of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Men are both the heroes and the villains of their own epics, Deerfield’s writing imparts, the destructive consequences of their choices demonstrating perverse Transcendentalism, Thoreau’s Walden now polluted and defiled.

In the ninth volume, The Plot Thickens, Connection Deepens, poetry becomes the precipice to which humanity clings, contemplating the abyss of failure but also appreciating the beauty of survival. ‘The earth offers gifts / abundance at rainbow’s end / revealed by the storm,’ the poet confides, but the bounty can be disconcertingly deceptive. Mining the ambivalence of words with ingenuity common in French poetry but rarely ventured in verse in English, Deerfield and his colleagues survey the fallacies under which corrupt societies have buried truths that are more easily ignored than confronted. ‘If intelligence were to grow to its full potential, wouldn’t it want to go some place it couldn’t be found?’ they write, evincing the futility of logic in a time in which the devastating effects of climate change, startlingly depicted in Travel by Haiku, are willfully denied. The poets’ descriptions of Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks harken back to the pioneering work of John Muir and John Wesley Powell. Deerfield distills the wisdom of these stewards of America’s wild places into a single line that elucidates the message that bursts from every page of Travel by Haiku: ‘Earth writes its own poetry.’

The change of perspective that gives Volume Ten, Crow Speak For The Moon To The Glaciers, its singular philosophical magnitude is apparent from its first page, Deerfield’s partnership with Stephanie Beattie and Cameron Christopher Stuart yielding an amplified voice that glorifies the wonders of friendships among people and nature’s life forces whilst warning of the cataclysm towards which the planet is hurtling. Poe wrote of the ‘poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.’ There is no such poetry in these five volumes of Travel by Haiku, yet these pages are not laden with dogmatic proselytizing. Deerfield grasps that, just as Melville comprehended that the reader must empathize with Captain Ahab in order to circumnavigate hundreds of pages of his obsessive odyssey, his poetry must please if it is to effectively advocate for environmental responsibility and individual integrity. To its compiler’s credit, Travel by Haiku is an easy read that provokes rumination by engaging the imagination. Traveling by haiku to join Deerfield and his companions by a campfire in a wilderness equally comforting and threatening, could a reader spurn the necessity of acting to conserve the sacred intersections of earth, man, and art?

Fundamental to the genesis of the venerated Sequoyah’s syllabary of the Cherokee language was the concept of ᏗᎦᏬᏂᏍᎩ ᏧᎦᎶᎦ, the assertion that written language, disseminated by literature and correspondence, constitutes a procession of ‘talking leaves’ whereby the wisdom of past generations progresses via the present to the future. In these five volumes of Travel by Haiku, poetry is a conduit for the rediscovery of neglected voices, primeval leaves that here talk in new refrains.