NY Phil plays Haydn 96 & Bruckner 7 (11/17/11)

(Don’t worry, this won’t be technical.)

Short version:

Two symphonies, four movements each = eight panels!  The Haydn faces show mostly how I wish I’d felt rather than my real reactions, though the 3rd (minuet & trio) reflects my real boredom.  The Bruckner faces are my real take: even if I wasn’t quite buying it at first, they nailed it in the end.  Click to see life-size.

Long version:

Haydn and Bruckner are very different.  To give you some idea: listening to Haydn is like watching a dazzling chess game.  Listening to Bruckner is like watching someone blow up a building.  For some reason, though, we expect orchestras to handle themselves equally well with each.  This is weird: it’s a little like thinking you could use the same director and cast for Some Like It Hot and Lord of the Rings.  (Imagine what a strange double-bill that would be.  And yet classical-music programmers don’t seem to think twice about this sort of thing.)  Ideally, this kind of combination showcases a group’s range; inevitably, it shows up their limitations, either in one piece or the other.  Spoiler: the Phil is a big honkin’ orchestra, and they’re really good at big honkin’ music.  They’re much better suited to Bruckner than Haydn.

Unfortunately, I’m not very well suited to Bruckner (I tend to be skeptical of bombast), but even so the Phil ultimately won me over.  Once they got past the interminable first movement (what is it with late-19th-century composers and their first movements?!), they spun out a very moving second (apparently a funeral tribute to the recently-dead Wagner), a pretty mind-bending third, and a suitably overwhelming fourth.  They really get this music.  They know how to build minute-long crescendoes, shimmer, and blare, and generally whomp you with what a fervent Yale Glee Club fan once called “a tsunami of emotion”.  They get it.

But they don’t get Haydn.  During the performance, I found myself irritably thinking, “Haydn should only be played by ragged bright-eyed young people!” or “Haydn should be played like the soundtrack to a pulp action film!”  More reasonably, I remembered a conversation I had last year with a conducting student:

(He): “I think Haydn and Beethoven should be performed much more like each other than they usually are today.”
(Me): “You mean, as opposed to how it is now, where Beethoven is performed like Mahler, and Haydn is performed like—”
(He): “— like boring.  Yeah.”

And sure enough, after they wrapped up #96, the guy sitting next to me turned to me and asked, “What did you think of that?” I raved at him a bit about how great Haydn was, and finally he interrupted me and said, “Well — to be honest, I didn’t like it very much.  There wasn’t really any…nothing really happened, you know?”

This is not true.  But it’s not his fault for thinking so.  Appreciating a Haydn symphony is hard unless you have a decent background in 18th-century music, because Haydn’s genius is playing with form; and if you don’t know the structures he’s messing with, you can’t hear him mess with them.  Surprises aren’t surprising unless you have expectations that they upset.  (For example, the famous “WHOMP” of the ‘Surprise’ symphony is surprising because it comes near the beginning of the 2nd movement, while 2nd movements are typically very gentle and cute.  Imagine jumping from panel 2 to panel 7 of the comic above.)

I’ve wondered for some time whether it’s possible to work up a performance that can work for someone without that background: that can somehow simultaneously establish the norms, in case you don’t already know them, and subvert them in the fun ways Haydn does.  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But I think, if you play up the contrasts and the ‘topics’, if you make the dainty stuff really dainty and the wild stuff really wild and so on, you can make it work.  Even a nonspecialist will get it if you make your performance a vessel for the Haydn spirit: delight, wit, verve, intensity, and joy.  Then we can move beyond these merely ‘pleasant’ first halves where a Haydn symphony is just an appetizer for the real meal, and embrace his work as the awesome fun badassery that it is.

In other words (or pictures):

                      Let’s move from this                                      to this.

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One thought on “NY Phil plays Haydn 96 & Bruckner 7 (11/17/11)

  1. Pingback: Video: Expressive Harmonies (YouTube clip) | "Oh, Something Arty…"

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