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January 31, 2006

Orchestra excels with modern MacMillan, but can’t save Schumann’s excesses

The highlight of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s January 22 performance was undoubtedly Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a concerto for percussion and orchestra by James MacMillan. It’s one of those rare modern compositions that appears and deserves to evade Slonimsky’s law of recognition, having received over 400 performances since its premiere at the BBC proms in 1992.

The work is constructed as a single movement that follows an arch structure and seems to be conceived in almost entirely rhythmic terms, bringing to mind the compositional technique of Bartók. A taut, tense energy permeates the piece and lends a uniquely modern power to the plainchant melodies upon which it is based. MacMillan fragments the themes, splicing them into different contexts and embedding them at various levels of depth in the orchestral texture. The percussionist is called upon to act as a general orator, directing, pontificating, and driving the piece forward.

Curiously, the percussion section is also called upon to provide a voice of dissent—a contrapuntal opinion, in the piece’s most serene section. MacMillan referred to this part of the composition as being reminiscent of a large congregation murmuring a calm prayer in many voices. However, he writes a percussion part that self-consciously only half-agrees with the harmonies and rhythms posited by the rest of the orchestra. In this context (and, in the interests of a peculiarly apt analogy, I will hazard the wrath of Northrop Frye, who was quite justly against feckless interdisciplinary critical comparisons), the percussion brings to mind the painting of St. Thomas the Apostle by Caravaggio, in which the saint is depicted as exploring the wounds of Christ before he can bring himself to believe in the resurrection. The percussion part doubts. And questions. And teases out the hidden harmonies and resonances until the music moves to a more satisfying position.

The St. Paul Symphony Orchestra did a magnificent job of realizing the music. The orchestra is naturally rather top-heavy in terms of upper strings, and this added an edge of hysteria to the passagework that seemed extremely apt in the context of an invocation. Colin Currie, the percussionist, was absolutely phenomenal. He gave a charged, coruscating performance that literally vivified the music. He possessed the rare talent of not only rising magnificently to the demands of a thorny score but making it look utterly effortless in execution.

The conductor, Douglas Boyd, shaped the sound of the ensemble superbly, counterpointing the impetuous virtuosity of the percussionist with his passionate yet steady reading of the orchestral accompaniment.

The entirety of the piece is based on anticipation. When the final surge occurs and the music moves to its conclusion, however, the ending takes a very different form from what one might have been led to expect from the preceding harmonies.

The ending sequence begins with muted church bells, heard as if from afar, which quickly escalate to triumphant peals that then seem to go beyond triumph into a sort of ecstatic insanity. The effect was heightened, last Friday, by the fact that the bells were situated on an elevated platform over the stage. Currie had to climb into the pedestal in order to ring the bells. The visual effect of having him stand behind the bells suspended over the orchestra was absolutely stunning.

The beauty of modern music is often a function of the brilliance of its advocates. Although astounding in its sound and fury, the MacMillan piece can degenerate into an entirely particulate display of virtuosity, unless handled by performers who are sensitive enough to discern the painting from the brushstrokes. To fall back upon a colloquialism, Colin Currie and the SPCO certainly fit and even surpass the bill.

The MacMillan piece was bracketed in performance by two works of Schumann—the relatively unknown Overture to Genoveva and the more famous second symphony. Although the orchestra and the conductor attempted a valiant revival of these works (and worked extremely hard to expose their merits), there is only so much that performers can actually do. The rest depends upon the musical raw material they have to work with, and, in the case of Schumann’s large-scale orchestral works, it is unfortunately not very much to speak of.

Like Brahms, Schumann was a gifted composer of chamber music. Brahms tended to transform the symphony orchestra into a miniature version of itself, creating intimate spaces and fine detail in a symphonic context. Schumann, however, attempted to make his dramatism even more overwrought to fill and utilize the forces presented by a symphony orchestra, and lost the essence of his eerie beauty in the attempt.

It’s not that Schumann couldn’t orchestrate—neither could Chopin, and his piano concerti are still masterpieces of beauty and introspection. The problem with Schumann’s large-scale compositions is that he felt compelled to use every ounce of the forces at his disposal. He wrote several lines of beautiful but wholly unnecessary counterpoint that cluttered his cleanly constructed melody lines, squandered the woodwinds on spiritual meanderings that detracted from the strangely colored beauty of his harmonies, and generally messed around with timbral combinations to no clear end.

Schumann wrote for the orchestra as the newly ordained philosopher writes his first essay—suffused with grandiloquence for its own sake. He was a brilliant chamber composer. When faced with a small and intimate set of forces, he was entirely in his element and wrote metaphysically shattering works like the Dichterliebe. But when faced with a large orchestra, Schumann always seemed slightly at a loss as to how to best proceed. And the fact that the SPCO was violin-heavy did not exactly help matters—the rich, warm sound of the lower strings that would have been able to anchor the orchestra’s timbre was seldom heard, stranded in Schumann’s already overwrought orchestration.

The effect lapsed quickly into melodrama and the sentiments of penny dreadfuls. However, the sheer technical and emotional intensity of the MacMillan piece more than made up for any shortfalls in the prelude and postlude. The performance of the MacMillan left the audience literally speechless for several long minutes after its conclusion; the intermission right after this piece was a very good call.