Over its 13-minute span, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, composed 18 years ago in memory of her brother, offers an attractive lush sound, a dreamy ambiance, and a slow, easygoing but well-paced harmony from moment to moment, usually in the form of major triads with blurred texture, whether divided strings or tutti, surmounted by melodic gestures in upper winds that fade in and out. The dialogue of solo groups especially interested us, beginning with a recurring group of two violas and two cellos, but the song-like wind soli stand out as well — flute, piccolo, and clarinet accented by metallic percussion: glock, wind chimes, tubular bells, triangle, at one point a throbbing marimba, elsewhere the sine-wave pure tones of crystal glasses (which I could hear but not see). Higdon provided a fine staccato brass fanfare as well, coming after one of the several well-prepared climaxes. The smeared texture might have benefited from a little less fortissimo, because the ear wanted to hear more of the delicacy — one might even say impressionism. At the end of the single-movement piece, 20 or so string players in the front of the stage were seen to shake Bao-ding balls in the air, so that the delicate sound of their internal chimes made a moving, quiet close. The handout carried a short paragraph by the composer describing her psychological motivation of blue cathedral. Composers needn’t do this; blue cathedral spoke perfectly for itself.
A few substantial works of Sir William Walton still make an impact in America: the chamber masterpiece Façade (text by Edith Sitwell), the oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, the march Crown Imperial, and the Viola Concerto, composed 1929. I had not heard the Viola Concerto in 50 years or more, but I clearly remembered its signature motif: two minor sixths descending via a minor third, E-C to C sharp-A, embracing a palpable A minor-major harmony. The motif appears at various times throughout the work, and at the very end is stated by the solo viola in its eloquent lowest register. The three movements are all relatively brisk in tempo, the first with some heavy orchestral bravado, and an especially fast, dance-like Vivo second movement. The finale features fugato elements, beginning with a perky bassoon melody that passes through different sections of the orchestra, then contrasting with a lyrical theme with horn and harp, and returning once again in augmentation; the movement ends with a stately slow section, not quite an epilogue, but an envoi of “elegiac tone, hovering between minor and major, a wordless introverted nostalgia, longing for that which is no more,” as Steve Ledbetter’s excellent notes expressed it.
The soloist in this exciting performance, the young Hungarian Máté Szűcs, has made his career mostly in Belgium and Germany. He has a brilliant tone and a fearless approach; only a few times did the orchestral tutti obscure his sound, and the composer deserves the blame for that (for this one piece, the orchestra’s full string complement of 15-13-8-9-5 might have been reduced somewhat) — but everyone was obviously having a good time. It was refreshing to watch the careful communication between conductor and soloist as they constantly faced each other; when Szűcs wasn’t playing, he sang along with the orchestra as well. Szűcs played a short encore, the first movement of Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in A Minor, transposed down to D. He is also a natural showman; after he took his bow, someone brought him a bouquet, which he admired, and then presented to the principal violist in the orchestra.
Debussy’s La mer completed the program. Some 113 years after its premiere, this great and very popular work has not lost its power to astonish. Yet for musicians it remains problematical, chiefly because of some passages of its wonderfully imaginative orchestration that simply do not work well. (Ravel, who as an orchestrator almost never missed the mark, supposedly said, “La mer is poorly orchestrated.” That’s an enormous exaggeration. “If I had the time, I would re-orchestrate La mer.” (One wonders how!) The second movement, Jeux de vagues, where so much of the action is lightning-fast, especially poses huge technical difficulties [in the score at mm. 147-152, for instance, where the rapid triplets in divided violins simply can’t be heard clearly at the called-for speed]. Some of those difficulties evidenced themselves yesterday. In the “noontime” measures at the end of the first movement, because of necessary flexibilities in tempo, the ensemble was not always precisely together. The different instrumental choirs are divided and there is inevitably a balance problem.
Francisco Noya showed confident gestural command; he had a clear beat, with complete left-hand independence for control of dynamics and cueing, and he watched everyone with hawklike concentration, doing all the right things at the right time; and in most cases, especially in the ritardandi when different groups must articulate at different times within the bar, everything came off well. When things didn’t quite come together, or where the balance needed adjustment, brass too loud, strings overpowered, one or two extra could have solved the problems. A full-time all-professional symphony orchestra could have faced the same difficulties in this work.
Contrast La mer in this regard with a work like The Rite of Spring, for instance, which is about the same length and loudness in performance, for a much larger orchestra. Players don’t have to worry about comparable delicacy or balance as in La mer; they are more afraid about counting beats and locating the barlines. It’s well to remember, in comparing works like Faune and the Nocturnes with the stormy seas of La mer, that all three movements in La mer reach the level of fff in the score, a dynamic Debussy used in no later work except En blanc et noir.
We enjoyed a good deal of subtle and sensitive instrumental playing within an entirely intelligent approach. And we heard the trumpet fanfares in the third movement, too — Debussy had cut them out of the published score, but we’re never sure whether he intended them to remain unplayed. Let me also refer the interested reader, one who is not put off by some literary stupefaction, to the analysis in Chapter 6, “Symphonic Tonality in La mer,” in my book, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on his Music (Pendragon, 2004), and my article on Jeux de vagues in Cahiers Debussy, currently in press, as well as “The Debussy sound: colour, texture, and gesture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, 2003.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.