Phantasmata (Etc.) at the Philharmonic

Thursday night’s performance by the New York Philharmonic included the local premiere of the complete “Phantasmata” by Christopher Rouse, followed by Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” with soloist Jan Vogler, and concluding with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 68.  Music Director Alan Gilbert conducted, and Mr. Rouse, the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, was present for the festivities.

“Phantasmata” is a three-movement suite. The second movement, “The Infernal Machine,” was completed several years before the other movements, and received its NY Philharmonic premiere in 1984.  (The other two pieces were completed and the entire set premiered in 1985.)  I get feelings of great nostalgia for my youth whenever I hear music by Christopher Rouse, because we overlapped at Cornell University, and I remember seeing him around the music department and hearing some of his compositions in student composer concerts during my undergraduate years in the early 1970s.  He earned his doctoral degree from Cornell in 1977, after having graduated from Oberlin and pursued private studies for a few years with various significant composers. 

I always enjoy his music.  There is great inventiveness in orchestration on display, expert manipulation of the instruments, a gift for dramatic statement, and, in the faster music, infectious rhythms.  I found myself practically dancing in my seat during the last movement, titled “Bump,” which the composer characterizes as a “nightmare conga.”   All three movements (the first is titled, perhaps a bit pretentiously, “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 A.M.”) are meant to evoke dream-states, and the titles are drawn from the writings of Paracelsus, who, according to the program notes, “refers to phantasmata as ‘hallucinations created by thought.'”

Certainly that first movement has a hallucinatory atmosphere, quiet, mysterious, intense, emerging from silence and receding back again.  “Infernal Machine” is a “moto perpetuo” that makes the works of that name by Paganini and Strauss seem tame.  And “Bump,” as noted, is a wild dance that had the hall rocking. 

I suspect that a disproportionate amount of the rehearsal time for this program went into the unfamiliar new piece, especially with a much-played classic by Brahms taking up half the program.  The Philharmonic sounded assured and well-focused for the Rouse premiere, and I hope that a recording from the concert eventually makes it’s way to the orchestra’s CD label.

I was less enthusiastic about the Bloch, but not because of the performance.  The piece is described as a “rhapsody” and I find it to be a big, garrulous and overextended, formless sort of thing.  There are many wonderful moments — generations of Hollywood composers have stolen gorgeous orchestral effects from Bloch!–and the cello has lots of wonderful lyrical effusions, well played by Vogler, but I do find that the piece just meanders too much to hold my attention throughout.  Bloch needed a firm editor.

Finally, the Brahms.  I treasure each of the four Brahms symphonies. They are all masterpieces, each with its own personality but all clearly the products of the same musical genius.  But the First has a special place in my heart, especially since I conceived the idea, while listening years ago to Klaus Tennstedt’s EMI recording with the London Philharmonic, that the first movement — and in some sense the entire piece — is a huge psychodrama in which Brahms comes to terms with the looming shadow of Beethoven, struggles to free himself through the first movement (especially the “development” section), emerging triumphant in the finale.  Most people — including the program note author for the NYP — relay the anecdote about Brahms declaring in 1872 that he would not write a symphony, stating “You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you,” referring to Beethoven.  At the time, Brahms had already sketched out the first movement of this symphony a decade earlier, but the project had stalled and he didn’t complete the work until 1876.  And, of course, everybody notes the resemblance of the “big tune” in the finale to the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  

But I think these annotators and commentators are missing the point by focusing on the wrong Beethoven symphony.  The psychodrama plays itself out through references to the opening motif of the Beethoven 5th – the famous “da da da daaaaaaaa” that is probably the most famous symphonic opening of them all.  Listen carefully to the Brahms first movement and note that dramatic moment when the first theme of the allegro grinds to a halt and the violas suddenly play, aggressively: “da da da daaaa, da da da daaaaaa,  da da da daaaadadada, dada…”  From then on that rhythmic motif is in constant struggle with Brahms’s own material, although things calm down in the coda of the movement, where the Beethoven motif is quietly asserted by the tympani.  At the beginning of the second movement, the strings play their quiet opening phrase which ends with the horns hinting quietly at the Beethoven motif, which then pretty much disappears, and never fully emerges in the movement.  The lighter-toned third movement comes and goes without the Beethoven motif appearing in full, although I find it hinted at in the middle of the movement.  In the finale, of course, the big tune reminiscent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony dominates the proceedings, as if Brahms has come to terms with his Beethovenian inheritance and is now accepting his role as Beethoven’s successor.  At the end of the symphony, however, check out the rhythm of the final triumphant chords, this time in C major (not C minor as in the first movement and the Beethoven original) – Da, Da, Da, Daaaa!  Triumphantly in the major, but now fully assimilated by Brahms.  He has accepted his role as symphonic successor to Beethoven, minor has moved to major…

So when I listen to this symphony, I’m again participating as a listener in this psychodrama.  The Philharmonic’s energetic performance reliably conveyed all of this.  Gilbert selects just the right tempi.  I did feel that the symphony might have been a bit underrehearsed and not quite “played in” for the Thursday performance, as there were a few less-than-unanimous wind chords and a few solo passages were a shade insecure.  This is a great orchestra, but even the greatest orchestra can fall short of a perfect performance, which I felt to be the case on Thursday night.  I suspect things were tighter for the Friday rendition, but that’s their only other shot at this program, because the NYP did not schedule the usual Saturday night repeat.  (Are they out of town for a run-out concert?  I thought it curious that the Rouse piece would only get two performances.)   Rehearsals start imminently for next week’s run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.”)

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