Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Re-creationist

There's been a growing chorus of criticism in the early music movement - and in the New Yorker and elsewhere - about the supposedly repressive, bourgeois conventions of concert-going that came into vogue in the nineteenth century. You know, all those pretentious habits like being on time, and not talking or eating during the concert, and waiting until the end of the work before applauding, and of course breaking wind as quietly as possible (which can be quite the regimen after dinner at Uno's). Banning such behaviors, the thinking goes, has banished all the fun from the concert hall. And why shouldn't we be utterly free, all the time? After all, we are stardust, we are golden, etc.

But sometimes you should be careful what you wish for. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington (above), who's something of a whimsical radical, attempted to re-create the conditions of the eighteenth, not the nineteenth, century at last Sunday's Handel and Haydn concert, "Haydn in London," and the whole thing slowly fell flat. It's true Sir Roger didn't go so far as to encourage the audience to talk or eat (much less break wind). Nor had he handed out periwigs or petticoats (although actually, that would have been a kick).

But he did emulate eighteenth-century conventions in his programming; he broke up the first Haydn symphony on offer into two parts (we were encouraged to clap between each movement), and scattered sea shanties and other songs in between the orchestral pieces. The idea was to create something like the long menu of different musical dishes that famously filled so many eighteenth-century musical evenings (which often ran to four or more hours).

The trouble is, we don't really know how well those musical marathons actually came off. True, there's much rapturous reviewing from the press at the time; but shouldn't the critics always be taken with a grain of salt? (I certainly think so!) And at H&H last weekend, the madness of Norrington's method was immediately clear: it's hard to maintain focus and energy when the format is always changing, the size of the ensemble is constantly morphing, and people are dragging chairs around the stage between every number. And I don't mean the audience's focus; we were puzzled, but fine. No, it was the performers who sometimes seemed to lose their sense of attack, and Norrington himself all but drifted off at times. If the concert was intended as a demonstration, I'm afraid it disproved its own thesis.

Which isn't to say the concert didn't have its moments; they just didn't build into anything memorable. At first the orchestra (and Norrington) was firing on all cylinders in the opening movements of Haydn's Symphony No. 99, and they fired said cylinders right back up when they returned after a vocal interlude. In said interlude, soprano Nathalie Paulin brought a glowing tone and a passionate commitment to the tragic and intense "Scena di Berenice," although it was hard to see how its interpolation enhanced the symphony.

The best music making of the evening came in the second half, when a smaller ensemble played exquisitely the slow movement from Haydn's Divertimento in F (while Norrington watched from nearby). This was surrounded, however, by a series of songs, ranging in source from Shakespeare to sea shanties, each of which Paulin approached in exactly the same over-considered way. And the opening march for the Prince of Wales probably contained the most ragged playing I've heard from the H&H horn section in ages; meanwhile tempos dragged, and Norrington seemed to be zoning out. The orchestra re-grouped for the final "Oxford" symphony, and Norrington pulled himself together for the sparkling final movement, but this all felt like a rear-guard attempt to recapture an energy which had long since drained away. Next time, let's not be afraid to be a little bourgeois, okay Sir Roger?

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