Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Five Finger Exercises - Part I

Just got back from a long weekend in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY - a weekend of classical music and shimmering blue lakes, with a few sips of white wine and a smidgen of art thrown in for good measure [1].

The trip began on a high note (literally), courtesy of the Skaneateles Festival - the last concert of which we drove up to catch [2]. It was, in many ways, a magical evening. There was the setting, to start with: an immaculately white three-storey farmhouse, with the orchestra seated on the porch, facing a semi-circular terrace (complete with a marble balustrade) with chairs for the audience, and behind them, three steps below, a lush green lawn sloping all the way down to the glistening waters of the Skaneateles lake. The whole scene could have come straight out of Henry James (or at least the Merchant-Ivory version of Henry James). And later, when the sun had set, the stars crept into the sky like so many students come to listen to the music with their standing-room-only passes, and when the music stilled you could hear the crickets chirping in the countryside around, the sound a gentle metronome, as though an orchestra of ghostly cellos had decided to join the performance but didn't know the notes.

The performances themselves were good, if not particularly inspired. Given the open-air setting the acoustics were a bit iffy, and I couldn't help feeling that the soloists, though perfectly competent in their own right, didn't really work well together. It didn't help that all three pieces being performed were well known to me - it's hard not to compare what you're hearing to the recording of the piece in your head, even though it's manifestly unfair to use Pierre Boulez's renditions of Stravinsky or Anne-Sophie Mutter's performances of Mozart as a benchmark.

Still, it was quite a program. The first half provided an interesting contrast by bringing together Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks with Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the juxtaposition being interesting not just for the banal fact that Stravinsky is explicitly paying tribute to Bach, but for the way it highlights two very different forms of propulsion. Stravinsky's rhythms are unmistakably his own - the pounding tempo, the heart-stopping pauses, the agile, consistently surprising beat - so very different from the mathematical perfection of Bach's flowing counterpoints; yet both share an ability to quicken one's pulse, a sense of something driving and restless and unstoppable, an energy that is pure momentum.

But the night really belonged to Mozart. The Sinfonia Concertante is an exquisite piece in any case, but something about the outdoor setting enhanced Mozart in a way it didn't the others. Both Bach and Stravinsky sounded, if anything, a little out of place in the open air, as though their music truly belonged in a chamber and remained uneasy about being transplanted into this new setting. Mozart, by contrast, sounded as though the music, in being released from the confines of the usual walls, had come into its element. (Auden writes: "he wrote to play while bottles were uncorked / Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked"). Those glorious melodies had the room to soar in, those cheeky allegros could run rampant in the wind. I imagined the music floating out over the lake, caressed by the waters, its faint lilt making itself heard to some listener on the opposite shore, it beauty haunting, intuitive; and it seemed to me that this was what Mozart truly deserved, to be free among the world and under the stars, so that even the ambient sounds - a shout from a passing boat, fireworks over Skaneateles village - seemed not so much interruptions as organic parts of the piece itself (the fireworks, in particular, worked well with the flourishes of the final presto), and the music like some dream of harmony, holding the summer night entranced.

So all in all, it was a marvellous concert, and easily the highlight of the trip (well, for me, at least - I suspect MR was more taken with the bruschetta we had Sunday night).

[More on the rest of the trip to follow]

[1] No, SB, this is not a short trip bristling with disasters. The most scary thing on this trip was the sight of MR trying to eat crab legs.

[2] Okay, so I admit traveling some 250 miles out of the city (350 if you consider I was coming from Philly) to attend a concert is a little excessive, but they were playing Stravinsky, after all. Plus, well, the concert was listed in the New Yorker, so how could we not go?


OrangeJammies said...

Sigh. Skaneateles. We'd hang out there as students and run in and out of the little antique shops and stuff our faces at Doug's fish fry. Isn't it just the most picture perfect town ever?

Space Bar said...

:D good good. and if this mean more posts, even better.