Arnold Böcklin, Der Toteninsel (New York version, 1880)The musicians of the NYPhil are back in town and, under the baton of David Robertson, were in excellent form on Friday night, giving an intriguing program of Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, and Schoenberg. And before I give my impressions of the proceedings, I would like to step onto a metaphorical soapbox for a moment and deplore the fact that the hall was far from full. Advance student tickets were available; there was a week-of special price offer for all e-mail list subscribers for any seat in the house. This is the NYPhil, people! You know, one of these world-class institutions this city does so much boasting about. I sat in the orchestra, with a fifteen-dollar ticket that I knew I'd only have to buy fifteen minutes before the bell. You're neglecting your arts organizations and depriving me of my traditional student-hardship narratives! And more importantly, you're missing out! On Friday, we got three pieces from the tumultuous early years of the twentieth century, passionate considerations of nothing less than matters of life and death. Oh, and sex. That too.
That Shostakovich wrote his first symphony at the age of nineteen, as a graduation piece for his conservatory education, is a fact I tend to willfully forget because of the feelings of inadequacy it induces in me. Ah well. In the hands of Robertson and this orchestra, it snuck up on us in an eerie and antic opening, unsettled and unsettling, only to later overwhelm us with crashing waves of sound. It's not a piece I know well, but here, I found it thrilling, and was struck both by its apparently boundless energy, and its stubborn refusal to find a center of balance. Its dance rhythms were brittle, its reveries never really peaceful. I was reminded of a line from Rilke's Book of Images: "Springtime on many pathways / but nowhere, yet, a goal." Under Robertson's leadership, it was wonderfully fierce. We had an interval in which to recover and compose ourselves to contemplate death instead of life. The full title of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead specifies that it is "after Böcklin," inspired by the Symbolist painter's Toteninsel, of which there were several versions, and which was the subject of countless reproductions around the turn of the century. (You can hear it as conducted by the composer here and here.) My Respected Father was successful in inculcating me with a great love for Rachmaninov, and I haven't gotten to hear his music performed live nearly as much as I'd like. Here, orchestral precision and passion were combined in a taut, richly atmospheric reading, with Charon's oar stirring the waves, walls of brassy sound rising like rock faces, and a heartbeat faltering somewhere in the depths of the strings.
1909 portrait of Pappenheim by SchoenbergWhat I was looking forward to as the main event, though, was Schoenberg's monodrama, Erwartung. Its text was written by Marie Pappenheim, a physician and poet. Bryan R. Simms (in this book) connects the text both to later expressionist playwriting and Pappenheim's own earlier poetry in its strong identification with a troubled subject. Simms points to Freudian psychology and the late nineteenth-century medical diagnoses of hysteria (including the famous case of Anna O.) as possible influences for Erwartung's Woman. The program notes follow this theory. Elizabeth Keathley, in " 'Die Frauenfrage' in Erwartung" (in this book,) disagrees with Simms, arguing that the piece shares many characteristics with contemporaneous feminist fiction. The gendering of musical modernism as male has, claims Keathley, often obscured the importance of Erwartung's Woman as a modern subject who is, in addition to being alienated and psychologically complex, female. Keathley reads Erwartung as a feminist Bildungsroman, with the Woman moving from being passively dominated by her lover's perception of her, to asserting her social identity outside the private realm (symbolized by the fact that she's wandering in a forest, among other things.) According to Keathley, the character's journey can be charted using four main points: "rejection of self-immolation," questioning leading to awareness, transgressive emotions, and resistance to closure. In this interpretation, Erwartung's Woman "snatches herself from the jaws of Liebestod by reasoning and anger."
Deborah Voigt's Woman did not strike me as either a hysteric or a Bildungsroman protagonist, and for this I am profoundly grateful. Given Schoenberg's wild ways with syllables, the presence of titles failed to raise my purist hackles (I even sneaked a peek or two myself.) Voigt's German, however, was not only clear, but expressive, with delicious, word-specific ferocity and tenderness as well as delicious consonants. There's no danger of the Woman not appearing a bit desperate, and a bit delusional, so I appreciated the strength of will that Voigt brought to her, and even strength of mind. The wild leaps of the vocal line may not always have been perfectly smooth, but they were invariably thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, and emotionally involved, throughout the Woman's narrative, here sympathetic as well as surreal. Voigt's soprano occasionally blending into the orchestral thicket seemed apt under the circumstances. Robertson and the orchestra did indeed make it sound, if not easy (nothing about those notes is easy!) then inevitable, with a propulsive inner logic. And, again, the atmosphere was superb; I don't think I've been that scared of a nocturnal forest since I first watched Snow White. After the eerie conclusion ebbed into silence, Robertson knelt and kissed the diva's hand (aww,) and we in the audience roared lustily for both of them.