I realized on Thursday night that despite having listened to recordings of the Alban Berg Violin Concerto countless times, I hadn't come close to understanding it.
Seeing a live performance enlightened me; moreover, seeing a live performance with violinist Gil Shaham, conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall energized my senses. The evening also included two symphonies by Mozart, the “Prague," K.504, and the “Jupiter," K.551.
Is the Berg Violin Concerto something I play over loudspeakers while relaxing after a long day? No. Berg's last piece was written as a memorial to a girl who died too young: Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and her second husband, Walter Gropius. The composer himself died shortly after completing the work, and the violin concerto's premiere performance in 1936 was as much a memorial to Berg as it was “to the memory of an angel," the young girl. This is not to mention that Hitler was exercising his full powers over Europe at the time. Not happy stuff. Not a happy time.
The work also is based on a tone row – the basic concept of which I normally find to be corrupt, based on simple math but in no way based on the physics of sound or on the aesthetics of music. However, Berg was rather careful in the creation of his row, giving it some potential for tonality, and he also threw in fragments from an Austrian folk song and a Bach chorale to mix things up. Even most twelve-tone haters grudgingly admit that this work will likely stand the test of time.
The opening of the piece reveals the composer's dual instinct: to stay true to the nature of the violin while experimenting with this then-new style. The soloist begins by tracing the open strings and goes on a kind of spooky exploration from there, as the orchestra awakens, stretches.
To me the folk song fragments sounded more like a deranged, disjointed waltz, returning in various ways throughout the piece. Shaham's playing was ever smooth, never a crunch in the bow. When the melody fragment appeared in fingered harmonics, it poked through with clarity. As the second movement “Allegretto" progressed, it sounded to me like an old, mad mind, where bits of lucidity emerge from the murk.
Then came the “Allegro": boom boom boom “Scrreeeeeeeee..." Violent and frenzied, like my mind would be after 20 cups of Peet's cappuccino – though that's something I'd never do unless I were suicidal.
Are you loving this yet? But this is where the performance started getting interesting, with Shaham, who by now was definitely in a zone, channeling the full energy of this piece. I enjoyed the cadenza-like spot with left-hand pizzicato over a legato line. Shaham's hand crept up the fingerboard like a plucky little spider – a graceful one. It was clear that he'd long overcome the technical demands of this piece and was simply living it.
In fact, he looked a little possessed, crouching over, bobbing his head as he walked forward, looking something like a beetle on its hind legs. I loved it, it completely fit the moment. Undoubtedly those who are distracted by movement might complain: Shaham walked all over the stage during the performance of this piece. When the music was unbalanced, Gil was rocking back on his heels dangerously – unbalanced as well. When it came to stasis as the clarinets played a church-organ-like passage, he became straight and still. The music never suffered for the movement. As Dudamel has said, music is energy, and Shaham's motions came from that energy.
As the music turned back to that exploratory mode from the beginning of the piece, Shaham turned to the concertmaster, who joined in playing the same part as the soloist. Soon more first violins joined, then all. The second violins joined, little by little. Soon all of the strings in the orchestra were playing in unison, leading to a giant climax of unanimity and sound.
Whatever it represented – a surrender to death perhaps – I found what followed to be the more poignant gesture: The strings drop from the solo line as they joined, abandoning the soloist to his own lonely line. The solo violin eventually ascends to the stratosphere where it hovers, as though disembodied, over the rest until it all dies away.
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