Thursday, May 13, 2010

Singin in the Rain

A damp gray Thursday morning—just the right weather to get one in the mood for an orchestra concert featuring those larger-than-life rivals, Wagner and Brahms. I whizzed downtown along Plymouth Avenue, passed the spectacular new Twins ballpark, Souls Harbor, and the bus depot, and settled in alongside a parking meter on eleventh street, two blocks from Orchestra Hall. No need to spend $10 in the ramp when I can get two hours for $3.00 right here, I say to myself. It’s true, I reason further, I could get the same amount of time for $1.00 over on Harmon Street, just two blocks further away, but I’ll have to plug a few more coins in the meter at intermission to cover the second half of the program, and that gets to be a lot of running around.

As I walked toward the hall I passed an apartment building with a quaint backyard park (just like London) and admired the trees bursting into leaf in the yard in front of the limestone façade of the Presbyterian church. It started to rain in earnest as I turned the corner onto Nicollet Mall and I ducked into a Caribou Coffee to pass the time until the concert started. Lots of raillery there—it seemed everyone one knew each other but me! I sat in a corner on a stool feeling overdressed, and as I waited for the coffee to cool I thumbed through a three-week-old magazine I’d brought along for just that purpose. How would the British elections turn out, and what sort of people were those Liberal Democrats everyone was getting so excited about?

My tickets were on the main floor, eighth row, center aisle. Nice. The Wagner was sort of early middle stuff (Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhauser), beautiful harmonies in the winds, flowing if undistinguished melodies in the Germanic vein, but without a central core of structure to hang your attention on. I suppose many listeners like that sort of untethered, sweeping sound and those cheery, almost Strauss-like tunes interspersed with some huge and feverish passages. I don’t. At its best, the piece reminded me of background music to a romantic balcony scene in a Hope/Crosby Road movie. But without a crooner to provide a lyric focus, our thoughts become slightly addled and we’re left gasping for air.

The orchestra sounded great, all the same, and that sound was put to somewhat better use in the Brahms double-concerto Opus 108. It was a brilliant pairing, in so far as the concerto opens with an extended cello solo that’s melodious but somewhat cerebral, as if various attempts were being made to untie a difficult knot, without complete success. The entire first movement has a thorny character, in fact, though the architecture is rock-solid, and the performance was so stirring that many members of the audience burst into applause at the end of it.

I am sometimes amazed at how long 24 minutes can be. Not that I’m bored. But I found myself admiring the dress of the solo violinist, Sarah Kwak, which was a simple orange gown with pale yellow leaves scattered across it. I also started to wonder if it was still raining outside, and if, once I made it back to the car, I’d be motivated to return to the hall to hear a Haydn symphony. The Haydn seemed, once again, like a brilliant program choice, challenging us to consider if the added weightiness of nineteenth century musical conceptions really added all that much to the expressive capabilities of the orchestra.

But the Brahms held my interest for the most part. As it turned out, it was still raining when intermission arrived. The magazine I’d brought along proved useful once again during my race back to the parking meter, though I was fairly well spotted with water by the time I got there. Haydn? Maybe next time.

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