Kent Nagano raises interpretation issues with Chicago Symphony Orchestra

By Manasi Vydyanath

The most intriguing part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert—conducted by the superlatively elegant and Beecham-esque Kent Nagano—was Ichiro Nodaïra’s orchestration of the first fugue, the canon at the octave, and the canon at the tenth from Bach’s legendary Kunst der Fuge. The first piece was orchestrated relatively traditionally, true to the fugue’s austere, ascetic spirit.

Matters became much more interesting after that, as the canon at the octave called for a marimba, vibraphone, celesta, harp, violin, viola, and cello, while the canon at the tenth was a dark, somber re-creation, involving a deep and turbulent brass section overlaid with thin veins of gold from violins and flutes.

To say the least, the rendition was highly unconventional. It was reminiscent of Schoenberg, Webern and Stokowski’s transcriptions of Bach with its sinuous, organic transference of the melody lines from one instrumental timbre to another. The orchestration highlights one of the crucial and equally problematic questions in music: the relationship between the composer and the interpreter—in this case, the orchestrator.

Briefly put: How much artistic independence should an interpreter have? How malleable is the composer’s material to the interpreter’s artistic aesthetic? These questions have been especially prevalent with Bach, as most of his music is imminently suited to arrangement. There exist a host of transcriptions, starting with the arrangements made by C.P.E Bach, continuing on to the transcriptions and accompaniments written by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert and the large-scale orchestral versions literally ‘created’ by Mahler, Schoenberg, Respighi, and Stokowski.

What we have today is, broadly speaking, two schools of thought—the scholars and the subjectivists. The scholars would hold that the ideal to which interpretation must tend is neutrality; being as veridical as possible in recreating the composer’s original intentions and circumstances and thus letting him “speak for himself through his music.” The subjectivists would rather look upon the interpreter as an autonomous artist, actively engaged in the process of communication, extracting the essence of what he thinks the composer was trying to say, and conveying it as he sees fit.

Nodaïra offered the audience a scintillating juxtaposition of both viewpoints in his arrangement of Kunst der Fuge, without compromising the integrity of either. His bold instrumental coloring and intricate interaction of the melodic lines harkens back to the immortal subjectivists of the late 19th and early 20th century. But in the pure, clear texturing, the relative unimportance of dynamics, he aligns himself with modern scholars such as Harnoncourt and Dentler. The overall aesthetic is one of superb authenticity combined with modern relevance, without a hint of dogmatism, revealing him to be one of the most compelling Bach orchestrators of our times.

The issue of the interpreter came up once again in Nagano’s reading of Bruckner’s third symphony. It is a difficult work, both to perform and to comprehend, filled with quick, tempestuous mood changes, brooding darkness, and fiery triumph. Nagano did a superlative job of integrating the work into a cohesive whole, injecting it with drama, passion, power, and sheer beauty. The interpreter’s need for artistic expression and the composer’s interests were absolutely congruent; a truly mesmerizing performance resulted.

Speaking of interpreters as gifted advocates, György Ligeti was not nearly as fortunate in the April 15 concert. Cliff Colnot, conducting Eighth Blackbird and the Contemporary Chamber Players, served as a wonderful example of what could actually go wrong in the process. Melodien is one of Ligeti’s most fascinating pieces, with a dense, complex weave of markedly melodic individual voices. It commences with shimmering figures in the “micropolyphony” (textures that are intense and concentrated to a point where they naturally dissolve distinctions of rhythm, harmony, and, to an extent, even tonality) and utter, sylph-like clarity.

The piece is strikingly beautiful, looking back at Romantic melodic writing from a decidedly modern perspective. It eloquently demonstrates that the tonal idiom is far from dead, and can be used to produce some of the most exquisite music.

The performance of the work was another matter altogether. Although some parts were very well done, something was distinctly missing. The turn of phrase and delicate, trembling excitement that permeates the opening of the work, the sarcastic interjection and mocking laughter of the french horn and trumpet, the long, understated lines of insinuation and implications that culminate in a roar of frustration—all these elements were present, and yet were peculiarly ineffective, as both the conductor and the orchestra seemed unable or unwilling to push themselves to the brink of expression that the piece demanded. It was a half-hearted rendition, something that made Ligeti seem warm, friendly, pretty likeable and not very profound—the best effort I’ve yet seen of “popularizing” a composer by letting him down.

The other pieces in the concert were not particularly noteworthy. The 1931 string quartet by Ruth Seeger is one of those works that perfectly and unpardonably represents its times, and is therefore doomed to fade with them. The Pacifica Quartet gave it a dramatic and well put-together reading, but alas, there is only so much that an interpreter can do for a piece. A City Called Heaven by Olly Wilson, and Elzbieta Sikora’s Lisboa, Tramway 28, were very interesting as experiments in form. Let’s leave it at that.

In a sense, this concert was a continuation of the issues raised by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The latter eloquently demonstrated the sheer artistic power of a brilliant interpretation, while the former exhibited the other side of the process—how a superb work may be rendered mediocre due to a mediocre rendition. The limitations of the field were also eloquently revealed—the virtuoso performances of the Pacifica Quartet and the Contemporary Chamber Players could do nothing to redeem the works by Sikora and Wilson. The performances were all perfect examples, brilliantly illuminating the various facets of the unique art of interpretation.