Monday, May 2, 2011

Youth and Beauty

About a year ago, I walked into my daughter's Saturday morning string orchestra rehearsal and heard the twenty or so young students (ages 10 to 15) playing music that seemed beyond their years in its world-weary, yearning, searching quality. As far as I knew, the only piece they were working on was one of Mendelssohn's youthful string symphonies that are never numbered among his five "real" symphonies. This struck me as more like Mahler or Bruckner, but it slowly dawned on me that they were indeed playing Mendelssohn - music he'd written some time between the ages of 12 and 14!

In previous rehearsals, I'd only heard them working on the fast outer movements, which are energetic and full of expert counterpoint showing Mendelssohn to have been a remarkably gifted student. But this was both much simpler (slowly unfolding harmonies instead of imitative counterpoint) and much more mature (less imitative of past compositional models). Actually, I don't know that I can say for sure that it's not imitating some other composer (Weber?), but this brief Andante is enough to convince me that Mendelssohn is history's greatest musical prodigy, at least as a composer. OK, the Octet and the Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream had already convinced me of that, but he was an old man of 16 and 17 when he authored those - he may have been as young as 12 when he penned this.

I never got around to blogging about it last Spring, and I'm afraid I don't have time to craft the full-fledged essay I'd like to write now, but this recording popped up on my iPod recently, and I've found myself listening to it over and over. So here are some bullet-point observations, each of which could (and might) turn into its own post:

0) This, is a recording from last May's Spring concert - it is, of course, not professional in any way. They're young kids, it's recorded with a camcorder from far away with my toddler son toddling around and putting in a word or two (c.6:08). So, I'm not pretending it's perfect, but I love listening to it and it's my favorite recording of the piece I've found so far (more on that below). I think there are significant lessons here about a tendency to overvalue perfection. That's a very complex lesson, because aiming for high standards is a very good thing - yet, sometimes a performance that's rough around the edges can deliver a special kind of something. And hearing the music of a child played by children has its own value.*

[recording also includes the 3rd and final movement]

1) Obviously, part of what makes me love this recording is that my daughter is participating. As a general rule,  I think that in a desire to be objective about musical tastes, we tend to underestimate how much personal connections to the performer(s) can (and should) make. Still, I don't think that posting this is just a vanity project - my daughter was only playing the "third violin" part (there being not enough violists to go around), so this hardly shows her off. (I will brag and say that she was the youngest kid on stage, and that at this very moment she is playing a mean Mendelssohn concerto in the next room even as I type...but, oh yeah, not a vanity project. Let's move on...)

2) One thing that makes me prefer it to any other recording I've heard (there are a lot!) is that the tempo is much slower. True, the marking is Andante and this may be much slower than the composer intended; all I can say is, it works. It's amazing how much this slow tempo seems to unlock the magic in this music. There are a bunch of other versions you can sample: here, here, here, here, here. None of them have the same effect on me, although all are much more polished. (UPDATE: I just found and downloaded this recording, which is also quite leisurely; the accompaniment's a bit too forward for my taste, and I'd like more vibrato from the violins, so I still prefer the one above.)

3) Of course I'm probably biased to prefer this tempo, because it's the first way I heard the piece. Again, I think "first times" play a big role in the way most people listen to music, although you rarely hear critics admit that they may be biased in this way. I have the same issue with the sinfonia from Handel's Messiah and the second movement of the Bach double violin concerto (aka, "the greatest music ever written"). One tends to hear each played more and more quickly these days, and I just can't get used to it. I grew up with Bernstein doing this with Handel, and the livelier, HIP versions simply depress me. And though this Bach is lovely, I'll always prefer something more like this.

4) The old wisdom about Mendelssohn's career was that he was an undeniable genius who perhaps never quite fulfilled his early potential, great though his music is. (Dying young didn't help, of course.) There have been considerable (and laudable) efforts in the recent past to correct this, and some suggest that Wagner's anti-Semitism played a role in setting up this idea that Mendelssohn was a clever guy who lacked a certain depth. Well, this is complicated, but, biased though I may be by the "old wisdom," I still tend to agree that Mendelssohn never surpassed his greatest teenage works, and that certainly says something. Only the violin concerto is, for me, as perfect as the octet - and I can't think of a single movement from his five symphonies that I love any more than this little Andante. (By contrast, although I've never been all that excited by Mozart's early works, once he hit his stride, his trajectory just kept going up.)

But maybe that's just me - and I'm always prepared to change. I know I need to get to know the string quartets better. I'm always confused by my attitude towards Mendelssohn, because I have no doubt that the Octet and the Violin Concerto are among my twenty favorite pieces ever written by anyone. Two in the Top 20! That should almost guarantee that be belongs near the very top of my all-time list, but he didn't make my Top 10. Hmm.

5) This is really just a random point, but I see that Greg Sandow is headed off to Cambridge to argue the affirmative side of this debate topic: "This house believes that classical music is irrelevant to today's youth." First of all, what a stupid proposition. Look, I don't believe that classical music is essential to anyone, and I get that people can live long, happy, fulfilled lives without it. And, sure, it is irrelevant to those for whom it is not (yet) relevant. But it's ridiculous to think that it can't still be relevant, or that it somehow shouldn't be relevant. This isn't the showiest piece of music ever written, and I suppose it's subtle in some ways, but I'll bet you there are a lot of people who could hear it and know that something very special had just passed by.

The symphony is quite Baroque in character in many respects (the last movement has lots of Corelli & Handel features), which is one thing that makes that Romantic Andante (when played slowly enough) stand out as so precocious. Though the symphony is officially broken up into three movements, the first has a French Overture-like structure: a stately intro followed by quick-paced counterpoint (which anticipates the famous Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo - go to 0:50 in the video below), so that we basically have a slow-fast-slow-fast structure of the kind so common in Baroque sonatas. And, like a lot of those sonatas, the third movement doesn't really end, but transitions directly into the finale. In some ways, the Andante is just a suspended moment in time, its unhurried tension finally breaking out into the break-neck finale, but I'm always sad that it's over. A composer who can make time stop is even more impressive than one who can make your heart pound.

I could easily write an entire blog post about all the little moments I love in the Andante, but I'll restrict myself to two: After a two-bar intro, four nicely balanced four-bar phrases present the main thematic material. Then, at the 0:55 mark, there are two little transitional bars where the melody seems to be lost for a second, before modulating to the dominant. Many recordings bring out the accompanying line in those bars in a way that ruins the effect for me. It may have been the result of timid inner strings, but in the youth orchestra performance, there's something wonderfully fragmented in those two bars as the music almost threatens to dissolve into nothing. It gets me every time. Then, at the 1:56 mark, the music having settled into the distant key of A-flat major, there are four bars in which a good ol' augmented sixth chord magically transports us back to C major. (You don't need to know anything about what that means to hear that this halfway point is magic. And, yes, I've now used the word "magic" a lot in this post. As is appropriate.)

The youth orchestra recording above does not include the opening movement (with its slow-fast pairing), but it does include all of the exciting finale. The roughness of the playing is even more apparent there, but I still find the scrappiness endearing. Mendelssohn here shows what will become a lifelong love with the process of textural dissolution - meaning that busy, multi-voiced music will suddenly have all the parts playing in unison in a way that creates a fantastic kind of tension. I've likened it before to a struggle in which it becomes apparent that the only "way through" is via a narrow passageway that, like a funnel, requires all parts to play a single line together. One might think that unison passages would be the most relaxed, but in music that is mostly cushioned by harmonies, sudden unisons can be very striking. The ends of both halves of the finale feature such passages (4:52 above, repeated at 5:39 and finally at 6:27), and though the unisons aren't always so unison in execution, they are thrilling in effect.

If you'd like to hear the entire symphony played by professionals, here it is:

But I keep returning to the kids...

* A few years ago, I heard the Boston Symphony (under Kurt Masur!) play Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony a couple of weeks before hearing my school orchestra play it. The BSO performance was terrific, but there's no question I was much more engaged by the student performance, even though, and perhaps because, the music had them on the edge - and, of course, because I was experiencing the music through these young musicians, excited that they were getting exposed to such a marvelous piece. I find that just about every piece my daughter is working on suddenly becomes a favorite of mine, for much the same reason. Sure, I could try to become a more objective listener. But why?


Elaine Fine said...

It is really refreshing to hear young people play this piece. To think that NOBODY played Mendelssohn String Symphonies when we were kids! The beauty of this is that it sounds like the young people have really made an investment in the music, and it sounds like they have a really good conductor. Who is it?


Thanks for the comment, Elaine. The conductor is this guy

Scott said...

I think your last point is particularly apt, and I'd take it further. I would argue that the youth orchestra's performance is more moving to you not only because of your child's participation, but because of the intense caring and effort those kids are putting forth. I have often found community and youth performances to be more moving than professional ones for precisely this reason: Often professional musicians perform with a sort of sterile "this is my job" approach (not the really good ones, but still), and the sound of effort and caring creates a real emotional connection that can be lacking from "real" performances.

Erica Ann Sipes said...

This is stunning. And so many of your points strike a really wonderful chord in me. This is what it's all about for me...witnessing people, anyone, experience music in a simple, straight-forward, honest, way. I guess that's why I enjoy playing with kids a lot of the time.

Anyway, thank you for sharing this post and this recording.