Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony

Carlo Maria Giulini waited until he was 65 years old to conduct Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  This fact had always amazed me: why would one of the world's greatest musicians wait until the end of his career to lead this masterpiece, one that most of his peers would conduct more than any other work? Was it out of some deep respect for LvB, or did Giulini have some kind of inner fear or trepidation?

Frankly speaking, some of the world's greatest maestri have been vexed by the opening, which remains to this day one of the most difficult passages to conduct.  I cannot think of a single audition I've taken where I did not have to negotiate the first thirty measures or so, before I would be cut off and asked to move on to something else. (For my Pittsburgh Symphony audition, Beethoven's 5th was not on the prepared list of works, but they made me do it anyway.)

More recently, I thought about Giulini's long wait, and nodded to myself knowingly:  now I understand.

Every musician has his or her little blind spot, avoiding a work that everyone else does but you.  For me, it has been Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3, "Scottish."

I can't explain exactly what it has been about this piece, but will try. It has nothing to do with Mendelssohn: I've done the Italian Symphony on several occasions, love the Hebrides overture, and if I conducted his Violin concerto two or three times every year, it would be sheer pleasure.  The Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream is still a modern miracle, that a seventeen year old could write such perfect, magical music.

But the Scottish has vexed me in ways that are hard to explain.  Is it the opening, which feels more like an inner andante, rather than the introduction to a symphony?  Have I avoided it because, unlike the Italian, it's harder and much less fun to conduct?

And then it came to me: what I have been most afraid of is the violins' first entrance.

There is so much that can go wrong with this passage.  For one, all violins -- 1st and 2nd -- play it together, in unison. It's very revealing, a bit of a high wire act. If just one player gets it wrong, or misses even the most minor detail, it can throw the whole thing off.

Getting out of the first bar is tricky, requiring just the right combination of rhythm, bow speed and breath. But even if the first bar goes without a hitch, there is still more that can go awry, particularly with the syncopated bow changes throughout the run of sixteenth notes, first descending before ascending, then falling gracefully to an appoggiatura, a momentary stopping place.

The unison continues while the rest of the orchestra waits, culminating on a high D that falls by a series of minor thirds, which, like the beginning of this passage, requires very deft playing. And because it is unison throughout, each player is required to play with the most perfect intonation. Whether you have 16, or 24, or 36 violinists, if just one of them is out of tune, you're sunk.

But for me, it has been none of these things -- however important they are collectively in any interpretation. No, for me, it has been something more basic, far more elemental than that:

the sound of that opening E.

One note.
Just that one pitch, played sforzando (accented) and then sustained.
That one note has kept me from Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3.

It's the same E which happens to be every violinist's highest open string. Even as the E is played on the adjacent A string (playing the E on an open string would be sacrilege), the E string can still be heard sympathetically, which is not the most agreeable sound. Hundreds of years ago, when Guarneri and Stradivarius were creating the most beautiful violins still in use today, they used *catgut for strings; today, metal strings are the norm, and far more practical, for obvious reasons.  But what we have gained in practicality has been lost in the sound.

An orchestra is only as good as the sound it produces.  It's like a signature.  How a large group of human beings comes together in a unifying aural experience is where it all starts.  Everything begins and ends with the sound.  It's the first thing an audience notices, even before the concert starts. Listen to players warming up on stage, and you know.  You can just tell whether you are in for a satisfying sonic experience.

Until now, I have been afraid of that opening E, but no more. With the Hartt Orchestra, we began the season with a symphony by Brahms, and then a work by Schoenberg.  In both works, the string sound was glorious, a thing of beauty.

And so it will be with Mendelssohn, and his Scottish, and that opening E.  We had our first rehearsal last week, and the violin entrance was just as I knew it would be -- singing, radiant, wondrous.

on December 14, 2018, in Lincoln Theater, the Hartt Orchestra will perform works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Susan Botti.  The concert is free, and you can get tickets here:

*Catgut strings were not actually made from the guts of a cat, but rather from the lining of intestines, from sheep or goats.