Literary Theme Causes Musical Problems: The Quad City Symphony Orchestra, November 5 at the Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Thursday, 17 November 2011 15:03

The titles of the first two Masterworks concerts in the Quad City Symphony Orchestra’s season indicate a distinct shift – from the pure music of Beethoven 5 (named for the showcase piece) to the literary-themed Poems on Fate.

Concert planners were obviously aiming to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between language and music in the November concerts. But somewhere between the idea for Poems on Fate and the selection of its music, the conceptual glue lost its cohesion. The audience’s perfunctory response at the Adler Theatre on November 5 was in stark relief to the profuse applause and standing ovation that greeted Beethoven 5’s first performance, and it was clear that something had gone wrong.

All four pieces in the Poems on Fate program clearly fit the theme. Johannes Brahms’ Song of Destiny used text from a poem, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino a libretto, and Richard Strauss’ Death & Transfiguration and Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes inspired poems that were included as prefaces in their published scores.

The challenge for program planners was to maintain the integrity of the musical experience while coherently demonstrating its connection to literature. (It would have helped if the prefaces had been included in the printed program, to provide a fuller literary context for the audience but also to demonstrate the florid style characteristic of the period when the music was composed.) And while the literary connections worked, the music, as a program, didn’t.

The biggest problem with the music was ironically the very reason it was chosen – because of its literary connection to the theme rather than its intrinsic musical elements or unique contribution to a specific place in the performing sequence. Program order didn’t seem to matter because, at the end of the Verdi overture, Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith announced that the Brahms choral work had been shifted from the first half of the concert to the second for “logistical” reasons. If the pieces were interchangeable, their positions in the program appeared arbitrary.

But there were other reasons the program was problematic. Concerts are musical events first and foremost. They should have their own musical dramatic flow or gestalt moving toward a conclusion. But all four pieces here were written between 1856 and 1889 – within the same musical style period – and they share compositional characteristics, homophonic texture, and orchestration on basically the same instruments. It’s like eating strip steak for an appetizer, prime rib for an entrée, and filet mignon for dessert – ample quality cuts of beef, but a tiresome and unbalanced meal. And three of the four musical “poems” were in the same key (C), resulting in fatigue instead of active listening.

Despite these issues with the theme and selection of repertoire, the orchestra performed with lyricism and excitement. Under the baton of Smith, the highlight of the concert was a vivid musical portrayal of an idealistic artist’s death experience in Strauss’ symphonic tone poem. It was remarkable because of the gravitas of the subject matter, the parallel dramatic flow of both the story and music, and Strauss’ extraordinary orchestration. Huge extremes in dynamics and instrumental sound colors gave a picturesque “view” of the death-bed scene in the music – the soft “heartbeat” in the timpani, the wrenching “life struggle” in the attack of the trombones, the moment of death in the low gong, and the upper strings’ chromatic ascending scales in the transfiguration. The string section, relocated from the October concert, was forceful in the “life struggle” section and then tender in the “flashbacks of childhood” portion.

Throughout, the orchestra’s response to Smith’s clear stick and enthusiasm produced a performance of passion and power, a musical version of an IMAX experience.

It wasn’t without a few blemishes. Extremely difficult to play, the piece tests the limits of instrument potential and player skill. Strauss’ music is texturally dense to begin with, and when the tempo was pushed, the strings’ musical lines became incomprehensible.

In the “life struggle” section, the severe attack from the tuba was electrifying at the beginning but too edgy to blend with the brass entrances that came later. The horns struggled for control of soft passages near the beginning and again later at the start of the transfiguration.

Soft dynamics proved to be a challenge for the woodwind section as well. Augmented with bass clarinet and contrabassoon, the section’s precarious soft playing threatened their pitch stability – making intonation, which is normally not a big problem, a distraction and exacerbating balance problems.

The program opened with Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino, a brief pastiche of “motifs” and melodies from the opera. The principal woodwinds – specifically the flute, oboe, and clarinet – demonstrated how the fusing of timbre with precise intonation can create a “new” instrumental sound in the slow, plaintive “Aria.”

But balance problems appeared in the uneven volume between the brass instruments. And tempo changes were again a nemesis for the strings when they occurred with spicatto passages.

The 100-plus voices of the Quad City Choral Arts ensemble, prepared by founder and director Jon Hurdy, joined the orchestra for a performance of Brahms’ Song of Destiny. The chorus sang from the traditional location behind the orchestra, which proved to be a disadvantage. To their credit, Smith and the instrumentalists made an effort to let the voices project over the orchestra, revealing a balanced, mature vocal sound from the mixed choir.

The upper strings nailed the arpeggios in the chorale part at the beginning and end of Liszt’s Les Preludes and provided sumptuousness to the smooth, arching melodic phrases throughout the section. The famous horn “quartet” was even and effortless, a contrast to the hazardous staccato solos that dotted the performance.

The strings did a heroic job trying to hold things together, but near the end, the pell-mell tempo went over the edge, making the compound rhythmic structures ragged.

It should be noted that the orchestra was moved downstage to allow room for the chorus. This brought the orchestra out from behind the proscenium arch and into the same space as the audience, creating a huge improvement in the overall sound of the ensemble. In this new location, the power of the Quad City Symphony and its music shimmered with sparkling overtones and musical colors of limitless hues, most notably in Strauss – from the hushed “breathing” of the dying artist to the sublime climatic moment of the transfiguration. Any problems the orchestra had can be overcome because of its depth of skill and the variety of programming in the series.

 

The Quad City Symphony’s next Masterworks concert, Concerti for Celli, will feature Anthony Ross and Beth Rapier Ross and be performed December 3 and 4. For more information, visit QCSymphony.com.

 

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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