Swans Commentary » swans.com May 19, 2008  



Pictures At Another Exhibition


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - May 19, 2008)   The desire of composers to imitate or evoke extra-instrumental subjects solely by instrumental means is ancient. Obviously when text and staging are added to music then the composer has no limit on what he or she can express to an audience. Hence opera, oratorio, lieder, etc. But take away those words and stagings what does the instrumental composer have left? Still left to serve him is the imitation of the sounds of nature and of specific musical instruments other than the ones being used directly by him. What else? The power of metaphor, analogy, and suggestion.

As early as 1628 Carlo Farina (1600-1639) in Dresden created his Capriccio Stravagante for violin and continuo that imitated cats, dogs, birds, and hurdy-gurdies among other things. His follower, likewise in Dresden, the violinist-composer Johann Jakob Walther (1650-1717) added in his Hortulus Chelicus (1676) a duo of trumpets, a contest between two violinists (on one instrument), the lyre, the harp, and ditto the hurdy-gurdy, just to name a few. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) left his immortal mark on the genre with his Gli Stagioni (The Seasons) (1723) in which howling winds, buzzing insects, cracking ice, rain on the roof, etc., are most vividly (or perhaps "Vivaldidly") and unmistakably evoked and depicted in the musical and instrumental proceedings.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) carried on the tradition most effectively in his The Creation (Die Schoepfung) (1798) as well as in his own version of The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten) (1801). In these works hunting scenes, sunrises, whales swimming in the water, etc., all have their roles to play. To be sure, the texts tell us what to imagine but it's the instruments themselves that supply the pictures in sound. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) followed on with his Pastoral Symphony (1808); and its flowing brook, its chirping birds, its country folk in rough dance, its thunder and lightning, etc. carried on the tradition most effectively. The words in Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) Lieder likewise tell us what to imagine but it's up to the pianistic collaborator to transfer to the keyboard the sounds of the objects suggested by those words (as Gerald Moore [1899-1987] so wittily informed us in the 1950s). And so it went through the 19th and 20th centuries culminating in Richard Strauss' (1864-1948) flock of sheep in Don Quixote (1897) and Ottorino Respighi's (1879-1936), Fountains, Pines, and Festivals of Rome. (1917, 1924, 1928).

But alongside this ubiquitous imitational genre there arose a parallel extra-musical depiction genre: not the imitation of nature or the actual events themselves but the evocation of pictures of those events. So that when Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote his 13 orchestral tone poems, among these he included his musical depiction of a famous painting of his day as one of his subjects, The Battle of the Huns (Hunnenschlacht) (1857) by the artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach. (1805-1874). So Modest Mussorgsky, (1839-1881) when he came to write the most famous example of this genre, his Pictures at an Exhibition for piano solo (1874), was not the first to have a musico-pictorial go at it. And when Respighi had his try at it in his Trittico Botticelliano for orchestra (1927) he was following in a different tradition from his earlier, more famous Roman tone poems. An earlier orchestral set, the Vetrate di Chiesa (Church Windows) (1925) likewise evoked pictorial renderings of traditional historical events. Closer to our own time the American Gunther Schuller (1925-) carried on this tradition in his Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959) for orchestra, which included his rendering of Klee's (1879-1940) celebrated painting, The Twittering Machine (1922).

The other night the Shreveport LA Symphony (SSO) performed Respighi's Trittico ably and vigorously led by music director Michael Butterman, recently appointed. But to make the event even more vivid to the audience, on a movie screen suspended just above the orchestra, Sandro Botticelli's (1445-1510) actual paintings which served as the composer's inspirations were displayed to the audience: The Spring, The Adoration of the Magi, and The Birth of Venus. This was not the first time the SSO had suspended that screen above itself: on several previous occasions over the last few seasons they have staged various events in which the orchestra accompanied various screen creations and goings on in more animated form just above its head.

But, as Butterman wished to suggest to the audience, the process can work both ways. A group of visual artists, preparing a simultaneous exhibition just across the road from the concert hall, were invited to listen to another great evocative pictorial orchestral classic, Gustav Holst's (1874-1934) The Planets (1913-18). And while they were listening they were invited to create visual works of their own inspired by these great musical happenings. Each artist took a different movement: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. And again, projected onto that screen above the orchestra, movies of the resulting visual creations were projected simultaneously to the performance of the music that had inspired them. Not just still photographs of the created objects: the movie camera itself became a creator as it zoomed in and out from the microscopic to the macroscopic while surveying the constantly rotating artworks. Often we saw the entire artwork only at the very end of the movement, having enjoyed only various partial views till then.

The movies alternated black and white with color amongst the different works, and portrayed objects of various kinds: a cartoon collage for Mars, suggested by that astrological sign's association with war; a painted box for Venus, alternating bright yellow and blue washes, suggesting Vincent Van Gogh's (1853-1890) Starry Night (1889). Jupiter was represented by a balloon-type object upon which Jupiter's outer bands alternated with mysterious photographs from within the ball of various 19th-century personalities. Saturn evoked a photographic essay of white curtains at the window looking out on a backyard scene alternating with chalked-in verses of an original poem; Saturn a brightly multi-colored quilt of sharply angled Deco designs, etc.

Separating the musico-artistic events was an athletic and evocative performance of J. S. Bach's (1685-1750) Second Concerto, in E Major, for violin and orchestra as performed by soloist Jennifer Carsillo (otherwise Mrs. Butterman), and most delightfully so as accompanied by Maestro Butterman at the harpsichord with the pared down strings of the SSO.

The SSO typifies what has been happening on the American orchestral scene over the past half century. When I started my career as a violinist in the Detroit Symphony in 1955 I received the almost microscopic sum of $3,120 for a 26-week season as a basic salary. Nowadays the going rate for such a position, depending on the locale, ranges anywhere from $12,000 to over $100,000. This is only a basic salary. Leadership positions such as the principal players of the various sections within the orchestra receive multiples of these amounts. To finance the some 30 major such organizations scattered around our country over the decades has been no easy task for the boards of directors running these shows.

Various schemes have been tried. One was to get private sponsors to endow the various leadership positions within the orchestra, thus relieving the board from having to sustain those often vertiginous salaries through normal fund-raising. Another way to increase the funding base has been to regionalize the orchestra, to cover a larger geographic area of possible financial support. Thus the Minneapolis Symphony with its already distinguished history (1903-1968) became the Minnesota Orchestra in 1968 just during the time I was there as concertmaster. The New Orleans Symphony became the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Closer to where I now live in Texas the Tyler Symphony became the East Texas Symphony and the Beaumont Symphony became the Symphony of Southeast Texas, the Longview Opera became Opera East Texas, etc. around the country. Still another way to cut costs has been to divide the orchestra into full time ("core") and part-time players, with the latter being hired only when needed for the usually low number of actual concerts throughout the season and for significantly lower rates of pay.

Over the years the financial stress on American orchestras has been more than the fund-raisers could overcome. When I was growing up in Detroit in the early 1950s the Detroit Symphony was in the midst of a four-year crisis during which there was no DSO. Similar temporary collapses have occurred in Dallas and elsewhere around the country at one time or another.

Eventually there arose within the American Federation of Musicians, the musicians' union, an organization needed to represent the specialized bargaining needs of its symphonic musicians differently from those of the more usual "giggers," and ICSOM was created, The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. It has been ICSOM which has led the musicians through those various and not infrequent strikes against what the musicians conceived as those inefficient and myopic boards of directors who had no idea as to how to publicize and promote the orchestra properly within the community and thus come up with the necessary funds to lead symphonic musicians out of the financial dark ages described above. Several such strikes bedeviled the Baltimore Symphony during the time I was its concertmaster in the 1970s. But eventually the needed reforms were put into place and many an established American symphony can now support its members without the necessity of the performers' finding extra "day jobs" in unrelated fields with which to support themselves and their families.

As an effect of ICSOM's success in negotiating ever more attractive salaries for the musicians in the ranks of the "top 10" orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, etc., when an audition is announced for one of those orchestras, hundreds of candidates show up for each available position. Naturally only a fraction of those desiring these positions can be accommodated and the unsuccessful candidates, usually highly trained and extremely skilful on their instruments, are forced to wend their way to lesser-paying orchestras throughout the country. This has led to the ever-improving quality of our provincial orchestras. And nowadays it is often hard to tell the difference in quality, if any, between those concerts given by the "top 10-ers" and their more rural counterparts. Such was the case the other night in Shreveport. The Respighi and Holst works demanded a richness and depth of quality of performance through the widest of instrumental ranges, from exquisitely executed solos through crisp precision of ensemble, all of which the Shreveporters supplied in full measure of artistry and virtuosity.

Despite such a high performance standard, among those extra jobs the SSO members are still forced to undertake are to become members of other orchestras in their area. I call the SSO the "I-20 Orchestra" named after the interstate highway along which are located various other orchestras to which the SSO members devote their artistry over the course of a season. In Texas, orchestras such as in Longview, Marshall, and Texarkana, as well as several others in Louisiana itself, not to mention the South Arkansas Symphony in El Dorado, Magnolia and Camden, fill in the musicians' schedules. The managers of these various orchestras carefully coordinate their performance and rehearsal plans so as to be sure that these same basic musicians are available to them when they are needed in the course of their seasons. Indeed if one had the time and gasoline to attend all the concerts performed by basically the same group of musicians throughout the region one would have the makings of the 20+ concert seasons which usually characterize only our larger cities.

The musicians of the SSO are currently undergoing an especially stressful series of negotiations with their board of directors. The current board's scheme is to eliminate the SSO's core group of musicians entirely in favor of a completely part-time orchestra. Heaven only knows the ridiculous figures being offered the present SSO core members as salaries, especially when considering the quality of the artistry they constantly demonstrate and when compared to their more prosperous counterparts in other sections of the U.S. But I suppose the board figures that if it's good enough for Wal*Mart it's good enough for the SSO. This scheme if carried through would connect the SSO's financing paradigms to other sections of our economy likewise undergoing steady impoverishment. Let's hope a better solution than that can be found.


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Isidor Saslav on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 19, 2008