Happy New Year to all!
What better way to begin the New Year than listening to Bach in a concert you did not expect to be in?
On the evening of the 31 December, having wondered from café to café in Soho for the entire afternoon, we were not only highly caffeinated but also looking for a nice place to see the new year in. Wigmore Hall was running a wonderful programme of Bach cantatas and the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, but tickets had been sold off for weeks. Thanks to three strangers who were kind enough to go find something else to do that evening and returned their tickets, we managed to sneak in at the last and listen to an excellent presentation of the Retrospect Ensemble.
The main concert hall in Sao Paulo is housed in a converted train station. The station still works – it serves line 8, which crosses the city. As you approach it, in the decadent downtown area, Julio Prestes Station appears as a neo-classical dream among the faded facades of the surrounding buildings. It was built between 1926 and 1938 and operated mainly as a station until the mid-1990s, when the main building was converted into a musical centre and the grand hall into a concert hall, the Sala Sao Paulo. It is home of the fantastic Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (OSESP). The story of its construction, as well as that of its renovation, offers a wonderful story of how music can make us travel.
Recently, in Sao Paulo, I lived through a perfect example of the surreal music scene in Brazil. It was a wintry Sunday afternoon. We went to Sala Sao Paulo, the concert hall home to the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (of which more to come in these pages) and tried to get tickets for a concert the following week. Disappointingly, there was none left. We briefly thought about buying instead tickets for a piano recital by Arnaldo Cohen, one of Brazil’s finest pianists, for that evening, but the only seats left were prohibitively expensive. The lady in the tickets office, noting our frustration, dropped a few tones in her voice, leaned over the counter and, with a conspiring look, said “go to the lady in the blue dress over there – she can give you some free tickets for tonight”. Before I could ask her to elaborate, she sat back in her chair and looked stern. I thought it wise to ask no more and went over to the lady in blue who, as it turns out, did have a huge pile of tickets for that evening’s recital and gladly gave us some. Soon she was encircled by other people and I was left in the dark about how that had happened.
If Joao Carlos Martins’s life has been pretty eventful, as I mentioned in my last article, the same can be said of his music, and the hallmark of his piano playing as well as of his conducting work is his genius originality. From the beginning of his career, Martins has imprinted his personal style on music of the compositions (often played ad nauseam) by great masters such as Bach, Schumann or Mozart. Despite having been sometimes criticised by his inventive approach to these well-known composers, Martins has remained true to his vision that great pianists are those that let their real selves come to the surface in music. In another excellent documentary about his life, Reverie (Johan Kennive and Tim Heirman: 2006), he says that “surely the point of interpretation is playing like yourself (….) somebody who played the notes exactly as they are written would be a computer!”. Furthermore, he mentions that even composers like Benjamin Britten, who obsessively annotated their scores leave a lot out, that must be intuited by the player. This feeling for the music is the mark of a great player.
The opening scenes of the Irene Langemann’s documentary Die Martins-Passion (Martins’ Passion, 2004) are exquisitely adequate in presenting the life of Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins: a grand piano is hoisted up dozens of floors outside an apartment building in central Sao Paulo. The image is as surprising as it is poetic – the piano rises above buildings and treetops, while on the pavement a man directs the workers who are pulling the ropes, moving his hands like a conductor leading an orchestra. Music rising above the realities of the street and difficulties of life is an apt summary of Martin’s life and musical career. For over fifty years, Martins has known the peak of the international piano scene, depths of injury and depression and a wildly successful conducting job. As in the opening scenes of the documentary, the soundtrack to this journey is all Bach. In this first piece about Martins, I propose to write about his life, whereas the next one will focus on his playing.
There is an illuminating – if difficult to verify – account that, during the French Revolution, the harpsichords of the Paris Conservatoire were dismantled and used for firewood. Such stories are, sadly, recurring themes in times of instability: proud intellectuals burning their books to stay warm during the siege of Sarajevo form a recent image. However, there is something so symbolic about the burning of the harpsichords during the Revolution: an image of an instrument that was falling out of favour being destroyed in the event that marked the birth of Modernity. Indeed, all throughout that most modern of centuries, the 19th, the harpsichord was overshadowed by the pianoforte (the modern piano) and it was not until the early twentieth century that it began to make a comeback.
The extraordinarily rousing power of music is a force that, as any other, can be used for good or evil. Daniel Barenboim’s recent concert in Gaza City has re-affirmed the positive impact that music can have in politics. Barenboim led an orchestra of two dozen musicians from Europe’s best orchestras playing in a cultural centre. The programme was Mozart: “A little night music” and the G Minor Symphony. The macro-political ramifications of this event are remarkable: it required a special opening of the border at Rafah by Egypt, authorisation by Hamas and a logistical work of art by the United Nations, under whose auspices the concert was given. As Michael Kimmelman reported in the International Herald Tribune (‘A musical gift to Gaza’ 6/5/2011), the concert was an extraordinary sign of hope in the region: “our job is to bring things in and out of Gaza, but we have never brought music” said UN official Filippo Grandi.
Political hope, nevertheless, comes and goes. As I write this piece, the first pages of international news websites tell me that fresh violence has erupted in Israel’s borders with the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon. Barenboim’s concert itself had an abrupt ending after the UN received a threat from an Islamic extremist group in Gaza.
I have been thinking more about the relationship between music and memory (which I first explored in my previous article) in two different areas, which has led me to two brief comments. Firstly, the role that forgetting plays in improvisation, and, secondly, the role of remembering in ballet.
So, first, a quick comment on improvisation: improvisation is an exercise in learning to forget. As opposed to just playing randomly (which is what would happen if I were to sit at a piano today), improvisation requires a great deal of knowledge and technique. It requires them to be in-built in your memory, so that you actually remember what to play. But at the same time it requires the player to achieve a zen-like state of mind where he allows himself to forget the part he is supposed to interpret and just plays. This “conscious unconscious” opens the door to the Repetition which I have discussed before.
Brazilian children have a game called “wireless telephone”. Perhaps it is played all over the world, but this version is very simple: you sit next to each other in a circle and the first person whispers a message, a few sentences long, into the next person’s ear. That person in turn whispers it to the next person and so on until it reaches the last person, who repeats the message out loud. The fun of the game is that hardly ever is the final message even remotely similar to the initial one. Each one adds or forgets, so that the end-result is a collage of miscommunications. I mention this because my last article, on Nino Rota, sparked some very pleasant commentary from people close to me about the relationship between music and memory.
My girlfriend, a ballerina herself, pointed me to Jennifer Homans’s recently published book Apollo’s Angels, her comprehensive history of ballet. One of the many interesting points Homans makes in this fantastic book is how ballet is inherently ephemeral. Since its early days in the 17th Century people have tried to come up with an appropriate form of notation to document, categorise and preserve ballet’s steps. None has been successful thus far. How do you notate complex feet positions? Chains of movements where the dancer’s entire body must follow a musical sequence? As anyone who has ever looked at those footwork diagrams trying to teach dance can attest, it is hopeless. Photography and film have of course helped, but even so, to reduce a dancer’s ethereal grace into a two-dimensional image loses so much of its impact.
Italian composer Nino Rota wrote several operas, ballets and concerti, but he is best known for his cinema soundtrack work. Indeed, from the 1940s until his death, in 1979, there seem to be few great Italian films he did not write the score for. Il Gattopardo, Amarcord, Roma, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet… his CV is endless. But it was with director Federico Fellini that he took the link between cinema and music to the highest level. From Dolce Vita to 8 ½, Rota’s music played a key role in Fellini’s films (in the case of 8 ½, in fact, it is arguably the film’s main cohesive factor). And nowhere else was the music itself as much a character as in their last collaboration; Orchestra Rehearsal (Prova d’Orchestra: 1979).
The plot of the film is simple, and it all takes place in the same setting; the interior of a medieval church-turned-auditorium, where an orchestra assembles to rehearse. The musicians arrive, present themselves; their union representative (this is Italy in 1978) arrives and tells them a TV crew is filming them for a documentary; the conductor arrives and, very sternly, conducts a first rehearsal.
If God hadn’t desired repetition,
the world would never have been created.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition
Repetition is essential to music. Indeed, without some form of repetition, there is no rhythm. And few composers have taken this consideration of repetition as seriously as Maurice Ravel did, in his Bolero. His most famous composition was launched in 1928 as a ballet. The universally known theme, repeated over and over again for about 13 minutes, elegantly introduces the different sections of the orchestra in a crescendo, culminating in an extravagant finale. Stravinsky called Ravel “the most precise Swiss watchmaker”, but Ravel’s Bolero is much more than a mechanical exercise in repetition – it is a small musical treatise on the importance of repetition.
Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri is a fantastic exploration of the nature of artistic creation. This short blank verse drama, written in 1830, has been re-told many times (notably by Rimsky-Korsakov in his 1898 opera of the same name and by Peter Shaffer in his 1979 play Amadeus and the 1984 film version, directed by Milos Forman). Despite the undisputable excellence of the more recent versions, the simplicity of Pushkin’s plot makes the point clear and elegantly.
The legend of the rivalry between the two composers, culminating in the murder of Mozart by the jealous Salieri, is probably just that: there is widespread evidence that in reality Mozart and Salieri were, if not best friends, respectful and supportive of each other. Mozart and Salieri here, however, are simply Pushkin’s vehicles to discuss music – and art in general. In less than 20 minutes, with only the two characters (not counting the brief, and speechless, apparition of an old blind violinist), Pushkin masterfully explores two conceptions of art.
Bach, the composer as intellectual
by Marco Moraes
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
If prayers begin by invoking God’s greatness, a series of articles on music should begin with an invocation of the genius of Bach. But how does one write about Bach? So many are the superlatives applied to him that any word one might add feels superfluous, almost sacrilegious. Jorge Luis Borges felt the same difficulty in his poem To Johannes Brahms:
I, who am an intruder in the gardens
You have prodigated on the plural memory
Of the future, wanted to sing the glory
That lifted your violins up to the blue. (…)
My servitude is the impure word (…)