ASO: Robert Spano

The ASO had a little pre-concert reception with complimentary wine and cheese for subscribers, so I went to this evening’s concert a little early and enjoyed a glass of wine and a chat. It seems that management is so convinced that nobody likes classical music that they decided to play cool jazz in the background to get us ready for the show. You’d think, given that the ASO has produced many Grammy winning albums and even have their own record label, that they might play something that would actually promote the ASO but, well, at least they didn’t explicitly insult us the way that Doug Hertz kept doing during the lockout. Anyway, thanks for the wine.

The concert opened with the world premier of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony no. 2, titled ‘Innerspace.’ The piece takes its title from a book of the same name by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan that served as the Leshnoff’s inspiration. Kaplan postulates that Hashem, being too overwhelming to be perceivable by mortals, is four times removed from the human conceptual world. The world as perceived by humankind is the first of five worlds, or realms of existence or existential conceptualizations or something along these lines, and Hashem, though universally present, is perceptually rooted in the fifth. As such, the piece has five movements that take us from our world through to that in which Hashem is perceivable.

The first movement of the piece was interesting: it started strong and rich but was very short. He states that he was going for a sense of inconclusiveness though it came across as being incomplete and in need of fleshing out. I think that the end of the movement didn’t quite express an inconclusiveness so much as an abrupt stop, which didn’t really impress upon me a sense of contemplativeness or inconclusiveness. Indeed, I’m not sure that an expressive theme had time to materialize.

The second movement was much stronger. It came across as kind of Glassy, with a lot of slow revision through multiple repetitions of phrases being passed around the orchestra. It being insistent but not as urgent as Glass’ works generally are. I could imagine Wayne McGregor choreographing something to this with about a 66% chance that it would interest me.

The third movement was slow and expressed a sense of divine mystery. More-so than the first movement, I felt this this one wasn’t really complete. It seemed like he had developed a framework and orchestrated something to make it work but hadn’t yet worked the emotion into it. I found myself thinking that this might be what it would sound like if zombie Rimsky-Korsakov were to experiment in a secret music laboratory somewhere trying to create the bastard offspring of Messiaen and Richard Strauss and had succeeded but, being a zombie, failed to imbue it with a soul. Zombies suck at imbuing things with souls. I could imagine Helen Pickett choreographing one of her dull, contrived abstract pieces to this movement with a 99% chance that it would be of no interest to me.

The fourth movement was fast again. It was more urgent than the second movement but was also clearer, more like it was driving forward to a well defined goal along a well understood path. I found myself thinking of Bernstein’s work and kind of developed an impression of this movement being like a pious response to Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3, Kaddish. This movement led directly into the final movement, a single, soft, clear note from the clarinet and then silence held as long as Spano seemed to dare (or at least until the coughing from the audience crescendoed into too much of a spoiler of the mood). This ending, coughing aside, was perfection. It very effectively expressed the inexpressibility of the Judaic conception of Hashem while also managing to realize the thesis of a realm in which the perception of Hashem is perfectly clear. We were tipped off to the nature of the final movement; I was half expecting a strong, loud sound like the tekiah blown on a shofar but was pleased that, instead, it was a simple, clear, and calm sounding of the note. The piece as a whole, I merely liked, but I loved the ending. I would really love it if Leshnoff were to revisit and revise the piece, either fleshing out the opening movement or giving it a more effective conclusion and finding a way to breathe some life into the third movement.

The second half of the concert featured Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7. This symphony is unique among Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies in that it comes between the 5th and the 9th. Spano’s conducting effectively brought out this ordinal nature of the piece, making absolutely impossible to mistake it for the 1st, 3rd, 5th, or 9th symphony. I felt that Spano took the opening movement a bit too slowly, though I wouldn’t at all say that it was plodding. It was more like he was trying to savor a memory as he was telling a story about his past. Overall, it was an enjoyable performance though it wasn’t really remarkable beyond the somewhat slow tempo. Anyone listening would probably, like me, walked out humming the main theme and the second movement would probably make them think that dating a violist might actually be fun.

Notable about this evening’s concert was the absence of the new principal double bass player, who was off having horrible misadventures with the Karr-Koussevitzky bass. The bass section sounded good. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it or not, but I’m now pretty certain that the sound of his bass irritates me. I don’t know if it’s his technique or he’s applying extra rosin directly to the strings or he’s wrecking the strings by over-exuberantly playing psychobilly just before each show, but there is a more pronounced slip and stick sound coming from it that makes it sound messy. It wasn’t as bad during the first half of the Mustonen concert, but it was really noticeable during the Prokofiev and it was really bad during every previous concert that I’ve attended. I guess that I’m just going to have to live with it for now, but hopefully I won’t be able to hear it when I’m sitting further away.

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