I have no excuse for not frequently attending CSO concerts. I appreciate “classical” music, I live a 20-minute bus ride from Symphony Hall, the CSO is one of the premier orchestral ensembles in the world (with principal conductors Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, and Riccardo Muti), and I can take advantage of $11 student tickets (including fees).
On Thursday, the CSO played a program of French and German music by Fauré, Bruch, and Saint-Saëns, which featured Joshua Bell on the violin in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. There was an article published in The Washington Post magazine in 2007 by Gene Weingarten about an experiment conducted by the Weingarten and Bell: would subway commuters recognize a world-class violin virtuoso’s musicianship during the morning hour rush? I won’t elaborate – a discussion of this would be a whole other blog post.
I don’t know much about the violin, and have only seen a handful of concertos played live. The first experience was exhilarating – Midori played Mendelssohn with the TSO, and she produced a purity of tone of which I did not think the violin was capable. I’m not familiar with Bruch’s work, although I am aware that his violin concertos are held in high regard. No. 1 is a great piece and Bell played admirably, coaxing a lot of emotion out of the violin during the second movement.
I have enjoyed Fauré’s music since singing his famous Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine in high school. Among the still well-known composers of his era, his style seems oddly unique (and French, as it’s often described now). Fauré’s emotional restraint and harmonic innovations imbue his music with a sort of potency different from the grandiosity of other Romantic composers. Pelléas et Mélisande is typical Fauré: gorgeous and mellifluous.
Having grown up in a school that trained organists, I have always appreciated the “king of instruments”. One of my classmates was a good organist, and I used to turn pages for him (and press the “full organ” button at random intervals to annoy him). Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 is not an “organ symphony”, but a symphony avec l’orgue; an organ symphony is a distinct form of music for solo organ. That being said, the symphony is fantastic: it’s catchy and accessible, it doesn’t need time to grow on you, but you need not be embarrassed for liking it. Although he was a prodigy and a polymath, Saint-Saëns wasn’t known as a pioneer – the program notes quote him referring to himself as “first among composers of the second rank” – but if I could produce even one work of this quality in my lifetime, I’d die happy. Saint-Saëns packs quite a bit of bombast, majesty, and artistic firepower in these 35-ish minutes.
I’ll list off some of the features of the piece that I personally find endearing. The misleading slow introduction that dissolves into restless strings. The rhythmic Dies Irae-like motif in the brass (perhaps for Liszt?). The lyrical “second” movement, especially the part where the organ chords and pizzicato strings transition from minor to major. Four hands on the piano. A piano. The opening of the “fourth” movement. A coda topped off by a descending scale on the organ played at a volume notated by a double-digit number of f‘s. “French” music this is not.