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A Musical Juxtaposition of Exuberance and Isolation

Seattle Symphony
Beethoven – Egmont Overture, Op. 84
Anderson – Poem for Violin and Orchestra
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Benaroya Hall, June 2015

In Lovely Blue

The inspiration for English composer Julian Anderson’s Poem for Violin and Orchestra is In Lovely Blue, by mid-19th-century French poet Friedrich Holderlin. According to the program notes, the poem’s theme is the yearning to transcend worldly existence for a life of purity and beauty. Maestro Ludovic Morlot introduced the piece, explaining that the author (and hero) of the poem turns his back on the world and is eventually proclaimed to be so mentally ill as to be institutionalized. Morlot’s instinct for making art accessible is predictably on target: he provided a narrative from which to interpret the often clamorous and highly variable soundscape the piece would soon produce.

Poem for Violin and Orchestra opened with a pleasant mixture of repeated bells and sudden low pitches, some honking, grating and traditional tympani suggestive perhaps of noisy city sounds. With each new introduction of sound, the novelty and kind of sound was increased, with fewer familiar noises. There were violin phrases to break the intensity of these interjections, but even the violin played hollow-pitched harmonics and thin-voiced sounds with the wooden side of the bow. The composer’s lack of regular rhythm or regularity of pitch and timbre suggested complete disorganization. The auditory episodes persisted longer through time, eventually leading to a climactic phrase.

There was a short pause before the violin melody became more dominant, and I expected to hear some melodic phrasing – a relief of tension – but even the violin “song” was variable, not soothing, and almost continuously novel as the piece proceeded. I could not recognize any distinct melody (though I suspect a second or third thoughtful listening might surface some patterns), but certainly the energy and mood of the violin were that of solitude and pensive loneliness.

I imagined this music as strange, unwanted interjections into the hero’s world. There were a few moments when I felt temporary relief from the tension so effectively conveyed, but they were truly momentary. I experienced the final phrases as a loss of energy – a submission to, rather than resolution and acceptance of. There was no hero’s confidence, no “I willingly accept this” – nothing of the sort. The music could not be described as resolved in any way.

What struck me about what would seem to be such a sad musical expression is that I didn’t feel empathy. The nature of this music left me uninvested: there was wonder and intellectual consternation, but no warmth, almost no feeling at all. In Lovely Blue was grounded in one human’s isolation; so too was Anderson’s Poem.

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To leave this music and move to Brahms’ First Symphony is a lesson in contrast. As composers, Anderson and Brahms are more clearly defined when we hear them together.

Brahms’ music is full of intricate chords and melody that express a richness and beauty. As in Anderson’s piece, many instruments play at one time, but now I am comforted as I listen. There is continuity of sound, there is a richness that feels confident and inviting, there are melodies, but they do not dominate. This symphony is like a tapestry, its multiple threads and forms coming together into one beautiful picture.

Brahms’ symphony had minimal solo lines, with pleasant meshing of pitches and instruments – a chorus of music. Anderson chose the concerto, characterized by solitary threads and accompaniment.

Brahms communicated exuberance in all things; he could embrace the world in his music. Anderson showed us isolation in a strident intellectual world full of meaningless activity and noise. Can one imagine a greater human contrast?

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This was a concert to remember for its statement of breadth and depth of idea expressed in music. Much credit to Maestro Morlot for his presentation of these two oppositional pieces. He gave us a new perspective from which to experience these works, leaving room to think about what each composer was communicating and why Anderson and Brahms – two composers from very different circumstances – were placed side by side. I look forward to more of this.

Guest contributor Roberta Kanive is a Seattle-based nurse practitioner and violinist.


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