BRAHMS Violin Concerto
KAIJA SAARIAHO Laterna magica
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 6 in B Minor
The Cleveland Orchestra brought an intriguing mix of old and new to this concert at Carnegie Hall: one of the best-loved violin concertos of all time played by a master soloist, an emotionally inscrutable mid-20th century symphony and an exciting new work by a Finnish master.
Kaija Saariaho (born in Helsinki in 1952) is one of the most widely heralded composers of our time. Her 2008 piece Laterna Magica — the "Magic Lantern" takes its name from the first machine that, when cranked, created the illusion of a moving image. It's also the name of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's autobiography — and those two sources of inspiration come together beautifully in this piece.
As Saariaho explains, the mechanics of a laterna magica suggest continuous movement; at points, Saariaho's musical motifs flow by so quickly that the overall effect is almost static. But there is also a sonic indebtedness to both Bergman and to his frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist: the score plays with the idea of light. Indeed, Bergman's own vivid description of what Nykvist was able to achieve — "gentle, dangerous, dream-like, living, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light" — is in the score in German. These words are either spoken into woodwind instruments or even clearly whispered by whole sections of the orchestra. This performance marked the New York premiere of Laterna Magica.
Before the Saariaho was a perpetual crowd favorite: Brahms' Violin Concerto with the excellent Gil Shaham as soloist. (This was a last-minute change in programming: Yefim Bronfman was originally scheduled as soloist for Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, but had to cancel due to illness.) Dedicated to Brahms' friend Joseph Joachim, the concerto originally was meant to be in four movements rather than three — and some of the musical material Brahms wrote in early drafts of the Violin Concerto made their way into his Second Piano Concerto instead.
The evening concluded with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6. At first, Shostakovich announced that this work — coming on the heels of his Fifth Symphony, which astonishingly was received warmly by both the public and Stalin's machine — would be a large-scale setting of Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. What he turned out in 1939, however, was an abstract and entirely instrumental set of three movements, in which the nocturnal opening Largo gives way to surprising merriment in the last two movements. It's light music turned up to 11. Is this symphony completely apolitical, or a parody of forced gaiety? Whatever you make of the Sixth, the two scherzos are brilliantly colored and orchestrated, and demand a truly virtuosic ensemble.