Bruckner Orchester Linz
Renaud Capuçon, violin
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
1. Movement I (7:49)
2. Movement II (11:51)
3. Movement III (10:46)
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade after Plato’s Symposium for Violin and Orchestra (for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion)
4. I. Phaedrus – Pausanias (Lento – Allegro marcato) (7:06)
5. II. Aristophanes (Allegrotto) (4:54)
6. III. Eryximachus (Presto) (1:35)
7. IV. Agathon (Agadio) (7:54)
8. V. Socrates – Alcibiades (Molto tenuto – Allegro molto vivace) (11:41)
Leonard Bernstein excelled at everything he did. Similar to composer/pianist/conductors of the past, his active performance life stood in the way of a greater output as a composer. Now that he is no longer with us, we lament that Bernstein perhaps gave too much of his time to live performance and did not leave more behind as a composer. Inasmuch, Bernstein’s creative output echoed the experience of Gustav Mahler who is viewed to have given so much of himself to his time and place as a performer and not having been generous enough to the canon.
I have always found that this point of view devalues what any artist achieves in his or her lifetimes as performers. Arguably, such an attitude makes too much of the importance of recording and composition. Who could possibly place a value on an amazing experience for those who were there in that moment when Mahler conducted an incredibly Tristan und Isolde or when Bernstein brought his unique an invaluable experience to a performance of Shostakovich in front of the composer himself. Who can weight he importance of such things?
Even for those of us who love recordings, a large majority of the magical musical experiences of life transpire in real-time and happen in the concert hall or the opera house while experiencing live music and not at home alone with headphones on. This will always be an issue with music because of its ephemeral nature.
More important to this issue is how creative composers like Bernstein and Glass are actively informed by all their experiences. The great inaccuracy is that we see these kinds of gifted composers as having had to make some sort of choice: a valuation of now versus then. A choice of whether to invest time in leaving something for future audiences or serving the present day. In having spent a lot of time around creative people, that kind of perspective appears to me to be mostly wrong. Artists are compelled by their creative spirit to engage with the most enticing possibility in front of them at any given time. It’s rare and/or generally futile for artists to spend their creative life trying to engineer and promote how they will be viewed in future lifetimes. In other words, while the music they create can time travel and endure for hundreds of years, artists themselves belong to their time and place. They are products of their time and place and their creativity is fueled by that world. At least that’s the case with Glass and Bernstein. More than half a century after some of his greatest works were composed, including the Serenade that was composed in 1954, the predominant theme in Bernstein’s work that emerged is his addressing a crisis of faith in humanity. This theme appeared early in works like his First Symphony and was consistent through works like Mass. Bernstein was clearly reacting to the world around him.
The same can be said of Glass, whose strongest theme through his operas and some art films has been about social transformation. This very big topic has inspired some of Glass’s works. When the Violin Concerto arrived in 1987, as a piece with no programmatic or literary connections, in the mold of a true piece of “classical” music it was conspicuous by it being unlike anything else in the composers catalogue at that point. Now years later we see an incredibly huge body of work that Glass has built up. So when we see the violin concerto in the context of the time, we see the very personal motivations behind its composition. While Bernstein’s Serenade is a kind of musical description of Plato’s investigation of “the nature and purpose of love,” we can see that love was the purpose behind the Glass concerto as well.
Bernstien provided listeners with “guideposts” for listening to his piece on love:
“I. Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento; Allegro marcato). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.
[The second theme of this sonata movement incorporates disjunct grace-note figures and dissonant intervals in the elegant solo violin part.]
- Aristophanes(Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime-storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm.
[Aristophanes sees love as satisfying a basic human need. Much of the musical material derives from the grace-note theme of the first movement. The middle section of this movement incorporates a melody for the lower strings (marked “singing”) played in close canon.]
III. Eryximachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato-scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
[This section contains music that corresponds thematically to the canon of the previous movement, Aristophanes]
- Agathon(Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.
- Socrates; Alcibiades(Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. Love as a daemon is Socrates’ image for the profundity of love; and his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements, and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.
Both these composers composed their pieces with an audience in mind. Bernstein’s piece premiered with Isaac Stern at La Scala and the composer anticipated a negative reaction from the Italian press. Glass’s concerto was written for his father who had passed away a number of years before. As a child, Glass had worked for years in his father’s record store. Ben Glass was a untrained music lover. Knowing his father loved the great concertos of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and the like, quite simply Philip Glass composed a piece which his father would have liked. This has been misconstrued a number of times that these masterpieces of the concerto repertoire became the model and inspiration for Glass. That is actually incorrect. In fact, Glass originally planned the piece to be in five short movements, not dissimilar from the layout of the Bernstein concerto. However, the piece evolved over its composition including a key change to have the violin sound better – a decision made with the violinist Paul Zukofsky – and after the first two movements were written it was decided, as a matter of length, to compose third and final movement and avoid an overly long 40 or 50 minute concerto. So its resemblance to historical antecedents was coincidental more than anything else. More than anything else, the final form and content of the Violin Concerto was designed for the pleasure of a single listener, Ben Glass, someone who would in fact never have a chance to hear the piece.
It’s at this point where Glass and Bernstein coincide. A large part of Glass’s artistic formation was to close the gap between idealized future audiences and those of the current day. To Glass, art music of his day was trapped in old ideas, outdated notions about purity, high and low culture, and quality in music being above the intellect of normal people, the great unwashed masses, and true appreciation for music was effectively held for ransom some small German town.
While Bernstein certainly worked to be a popular composer and held audiences in high esteem, Glass’s generation of artists and composers specifically reacted to a breaking point between the official music of the time and they liberated themselves from the lineage of that past in this way. The composers of the mid-1960s reengaged with audiences, rewrote the rules of evaluating creativity of all kinds, and they benefitted ultimately by becoming a coherent and legitimate artistic movement, Minimalism, which could confront the establishment its own terms.
While Glass did not seem to worry himself with the idea of posterity, neither did Bernstein for much of his life (latter-day projects like his operatically recorded West Side Story not withstanding.) Glass and Bernstein were writing for audiences of their time, as they themselves are artists of their time more than anything like musical compatriots. To focus on their similarity these two composers are creative geniuses with an insatiable desire to do it all. Bernstein had a facility that permitted him to excel in whatever he was doing as a composer, a writer, a virtuoso pianist, a communicator and as a composer. Bernstein was quite literally a brilliant creative force while maintaining values based in populism. Much more of a full-time composer than Bernstein ever was, nonetheless Glass has committed many months of every year for half a century to live performance as both a pianist (playing almost exclusively his own music) and with his group The Philip Glass Ensemble. Oddly, it’s only come to be the perception that Glass is a populist once his audience had reached a critical mass. Before that, Glass was exclusively known as an enfant terrible/avant garde composer. Despite the early rejection of his music, the world eventually caught up to him to the point where he was eventually criticized for being too popular to be any good. But that’s another story.
While both men had concurrent lives as performers, and while both composers generally had a populist bent in their personalities, another commonality that we can see in their work is towards the theatrical. Much of Bernstein’s music can be labeled theatrical or programmatic in much the same was as can Glass’s. All three of Bernstein’s symphonies possess extra-musical connections. In his eleven numbered symphonies, Glass has quite a few who venture “dangerously” close to forms like ballet, oratorio, or program music. In the case of the two pieces on this recording of two violin concertos, we can see how both composers dealt with the challenge of writing for violin and orchestra.
For Glass, his Violin Concerto is a piece that exploded within tight formal procedure. This was a marvelous and very powerful part of Glass’s creative life. The novelty and innovation in this concerto springs from use of the violin and orchestra as an expressive medium for his very recognizable musical voice. For a lengthy and useful discussion of the composition of this concerto, it’s of great benefit to refer to Robert Maycock’s book Glass: A Portrait in which Maycock describes the evolution of the piece. For me, what is most interesting is after nearly two decades away from the orchestra, preferring instead to write for the Philip Glass Ensemble while developing his own sound, Glass returned to the orchestra as a possible mouthpiece for his musical voice.
Davies recollects: “I remember doing the premiere (Paul Zukovsky and the American Composers Orchestra). It was I’m quite sure an ACO Commission, Philip was getting comfortable with a classical orchestra after his successes with his early operas and he had a sound and orchestral color in his ear. But the challenge of balancing a large orchestra with a Violin solo was difficult for him (why shouldn’t it be-Brahms couldn’t really handle it either.) And while I had done really successful opera premieres with him, the mutual trust and confidence in each other’s judgment that we have built up over the past 30 years wasn’t yet fully established and Paul, the orchestra, Philip, and I struggled to find a way to play it.”
Maycock goes into lengthy discussion about Glass’s process. What Davies describes above, issues of balance, are at the crux of writing any kind of concerto. Composer John Adams, as he does with his operas, often simply amplifies the solo instrument or voice to achieve his own artistic goal and avoid the issue of balance almost all together. For concert-goers, who might only know any of the famous concertos from recordings, are often underwhelmed in live performance to hear the tiny sound of a of a soloist in pieces like the Tchaikovsky concerto and how often the soloist is drowned out by a Romantic-sized orchestra.
Both of the concertos on this album are performed very often. Glass’s concerto is now three decades old and of all his concert works it is the closest thing he has to an official entry into the canon. For that distinction is thanks largely to Gidon Kremer who lobbied orchestras to perform the piece in the early 1990s when it was new but he was often turned away by orchestras. Kremer’s devotion to the piece manifested itself with the recording Kremer made for Deutsche Grammophon with von Dohnanyi and the Vienna Philharmonic (though the orchestra never performed the piece in concert.) In 2009, Davies and Kremer reunited to perform the piece at the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall. This recording featuring virtuoso Renaud Capuçon is the fourth recording on record yet the first with its original conductor Davies who has performed it numerous times since its premiere.
In 2009, I discussed the work with Glass who was at the Albert Hall performance. At that point, Glass said “Davies is the only one to observe my tempo marking in the second movement.” Indeed, in this interpretation with the brilliant Capuçon as soloist, the second movement comes in at over twelve minutes in length as opposed to the usual 8 or 9 minute interpretation. Additionally, Davies commented on the alterations that he has made to the original orchestration – not changing anything but doing some judicious pruning to help the violin be heard above the big orchestra.
Davies elucidates, “The Carnegie performance was still successful with the public, the west coast premiere with Paul at the Cabrillo Festival a couple of years later was a triumph and my confidence and familiarity with the piece grew over the years after additional performances with Gidon Kremer. When Renaud Capuçon and I planned to tour and record the concerto with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz (in 2009, later re-recorded in 2012), Philip have me a green light to basically rework the orchestration which I did extensively-thinning here, alternating unisons and combinations there-to emphasize the structure of the piece and give the violin space acoustically to be always present and when necessary dominate as a solo voice. This recording is the first of this new authorized version. I’m pleased that my first recording of this seminal work, having premiered it so many years ago, is this one with Renaud.”
On interacting with Bernstein, Davies continued, “I had one intense working period with Lenny-as Music Director for the 1989 Beethoven Fest in Bonn. I invited him to be Composer-in-Residence and conducted several of his major concert pieces with the Beethovenhalle Orchestra, while he led a series of concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. Intense days and late nights, and to this day I value the experiences and memory of this strong musical personality which is clearly heard in his music. I wish he had written more, but I’m grateful for what we have.”
On January 31, 2017 marks Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with the world premiere performance of Symphony No.11 at Carnegie Hall almost exactly thirty years after premiering the Violin Concerto, the manuscript of which hangs on the wall at Carnegie, the most famous temple for music in America. 2017 is a Glass year with all the birthday festivities and concerts as 2018 marks the Bernstein centenary as we reflect on the continuity of these two great composers.
-Richard Guérin, Salem, MA 2016
Publishers (Glass): G. Schirmer, Inc. (ASCAP).
© 2017 Orange Mountain Music
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Violin Concerto / Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten / Company on Naxos
Violin Concerto on Deutsche Grammophon
Violin Concertos on Deutsche Grammophon