Symphonies are much like Shakespeare’s plays. They appear cyclically in the repertory of orchestras and yet as oft repeated as they may be, the house will fill. In the corridors and down the stairs the remark “I love it every time” will be heard. Just as with the plays, a director will return to the text to draw out new nuances and form his/her own interpretation, so a conductor returns to the score. For David Robertson, about to embark on his 4th season as Chief Conductor of the SSO, the aim is to “become very aware of what the composer wrote and start from that. This means that the experience of preparation is both objective and subjective at the same time. It is objective because rather than using some artefact like a recording or another performance – even a performance that I have done myself – I try to go objectively in to what is in the score and figure out why the composer has decided to write the score in the exact way she or he has done. That is inevitably subjective, but it means I am trying to engage with the work in a fresh way every single time and not take it for granted even though I may have done it a number of times before.”
This method will guide Robertson’s approach to Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, to be performed by the orchestra in February. A favourite with audiences for the emotional trajectory it takes from sorrow to triumph,the symphony is ripe with possibilities for discovery. What, to the audience, is experienced as a journey is coded in the score as a theme that exists in different permutations in all four movements. In musicological terms, this is known as cyclical. Then there is the harmonic progression, from the mournful E minor (in the Baroque period, known as the key of lament with a glimmer of hope) to the joy of E major (the key of full delight). But these are merely plot devices and so Robertson will dig deeper, contemplating how the instruments are paired, why Tchaikovsky instructs a crescendo for three bars but a diminuendo for three.
Where this may be Robertson’s approach music historians would take a different tack. They might be fascinated by the history of the piece, that it was written in the summer of 1888, at a time when Tchaikovsky had won favour with Tsar Alexander III and had begun to actively promote Russian music. They would wonder whether this period of somewhat stability in Tchaikovsky’s tumultuous life led him to contemplate the idea of destiny and compose a symphony about the resignation to fate. Where Robertson may give a nod to this idea, he is not bound to it for this is not the ‘truth’ of the score. As a man who does not believe in fate, Robertson is far more likely to see the symphony as more in line with “Hamlet’s speech, To Be or Not To Be, and a question that goes all the way back to the Greeks: What do you do in a situation when things are stacked against you? The human condition is one where there’s a necessary struggle which is the struggle to live and that struggle in itself has a great quality of nobility. Whether or not you can discuss a fate as something unavoidable is only possible from a vantage point outside of the person who is undergoing the fate.” Tchaikovsky might be inclined to agree for, as the music historian would point out, the second performance of the 5th Symphony was given alongside the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s tone poem, Hamlet.
Tchaikovsky’s 5th may be Robertson’s first concert with the orchestra for 2017, but the season will be in fact be launched by Assistant Conductor Toby Thatcher with Haydn’s Symphony No. 68. Audience members lucky enough to attend both concerts will thus get to experience how the form evolved with time. As Robertson explains, “the development of the symphony through the classical period of the 1770s through 1790s in to the beginning of the 20th century has meant that the form can take on a huge number of different dramatic, lyric and even philosophical questions. The symphonies we are presenting span a very wide range of approaches to the symphony, from very concentrated to enormous and mammoth, and it’s particularly the breadth and spread of approaches that I find fascinating in this season.”
As much as symphonies evolved, so did concerti and as the Haydn Symphony will be paired with a fellow classical work (a Mozart piano concerto), so the Tchaikovsky is matched with a Romantic wonder. Brahms’ Violin Concerto was written in 1878 for his good friend Joseph Joachim. Predominantly a pianist, Brahms consulted Joachim on the writing of the violin part. What is now established repertoire began its life as some jottings that travelled by post, being expanded on at one end and commented on at the other. Not all Joachim’s suggestions were taken by Brahms but his friend’s cadenza was deemed a success and remains in the work today. Performing the concerto in Sydney will be the great violinist Maxim Vengerov. As with Robertson, it will be interesting to see what Vengerov draws out of the part for this specific rendition. Injury led Vengerov to turn his hand to conducting and one wonders how seeing the orchestra from the other side has influenced Vengerov as a performer. Do his eyes fix on different aspects of the score? As a concerto soloist, does he now relate to conductors differently? With Vengerov’s professionalism and thirst for music it can be trusted that any changes are enhancements.
From his personal experience with injury, his work as a UN ambassador and a tutor at the Royal Academy (London), Vengerov easily sees the emotional power of music. He once said that music has “the power of healing because we learn something not only about music but about ourselves”. As conducting a work is as much a journey as performing it, Fine Music asked Robertson what he thinks he might learn from the Brahms Concerto. His answer is thoughtful. Whilst he agrees with Vengerov’s notion, he “thinks that what we learn is something that happens while we are engaging with the piece of music and it often comes as a surprise to us. It would be impossible for me to say what I learn from a piece of music before I’m actually engaged with that piece in that performance. Even then, the wonderful thing about music is that often times the feeling of the lesson that you learn or the thing that you perceive or the enlightenment that you have, feels quite often as though it can’t adequately be expressed in verbal language.”
Brahms would certainly have agreed. So much of what he composed was inspired by an inexpressible emotional landscape. His love for Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) inspired many of his great piano works and he wrote his Double Concerto for violin and cello to restore his friendship with Joachim. Similarly, Joachim tried to use music to make statements on Brahms’ behalf. The premiere of Brahms’ Violin Concerto was given with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, for Joachim hoped that the juxtaposition of an established work with a new one would aid its reception. Criticism, however, was mixed for many were not ready to see the solo instrument taken off its virtuosic rostrum and infused into orchestral texture.
One such critic of the work was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky himself. The two men reportedly disliked each other, Tchaikovsky thinking Brahms a scoundrel and Brahms dismissive of Tchaikovsky’s composing. Wondering if there was a deeper, musical reason for their animosity, the question is put to Robertson. Whilst considering that “many composers have a very personal way of looking at music and that’s partly there to protect their own gifts,” Robertson is not too concerned with whether “Britten liked Brahms or Tchaikovsky liked Wagner as opposed to whether or not we can hear the sound world that these individual artists were able to imagine and realise so incredibly well.” Personal politics may be entertaining and spice up a program but Robertson in his wisdom is encompassed in the musical. Though if one may speculate, it seems likely that Brahms and Tchaikovsky were in fact too similar to get on and it is for that reason that their music pairs so beautifully.
Joachim and Brahms, Vengerov and Robertson. Great performers and conductors make formidable pairs. Robertson is looking forward to working with Vengerov for whilst the two have crossed paths this will be their first collaboration. One wonders what they will talk about in the dressing room. Might they pontificate on the concept of fate or consider their own musical journeys? Perhaps they will be found, heads buried in the scores pondering their secrets. Or perhaps as two Jazz lovers they will have Chet Baker’s Moon Love playing in the background. It was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony after all.
– Nichy Gluch