Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 | Princess WinterSpring SummerFall was my favorite character on Howdy Doody. I loved her name; it rolled along, like the seasons.
In the foothills of the Catskills and in New York City, where I grew up and lived, all the seasons were memorable. Winter brought snow-packed hillsides for sledding until our snow pants froze at the cuffs; spring rained water then lilacs; summer brutalized city dwellers and fire hydrants gushed relief; fall assailed your eyes with color and your nostrils with the smell of leaves burning in gutters, as men in rolled-up shirtsleeves guarded and prodded the small fires.
This week, Jung-Ho Pak and the San Diego Chamber Orchestra will perform a program entirely devoted to the seasons as eight composers wrote about them. Pak said the program has an intrinsic irony: music about seasons in “the most seasonless city on the planet.” San Diegans most commonly cite weather as our greatest attraction. Still, as Pak pointed out, many people look forward to winter.
Modern people also are able to cut themselves off from nature. As Pak pointed out, modern houses — and offices — are hermetically sealed. We regulate our surroundings’ temperatures and humidity, especially in summer, when we hop from air-conditioned cars to house to offices to stores.
We read about climate change, but nature is at arm’s length unless we spend time in the outdoors, skiing, surfing, rock, or whatever. After the sports day is over, we scurry back to our well insulated shelters. We are no longer an agricultural people, watching the heavens for signs that tell us when to sow and harvest. People in the big cities witness the force of nature mostly on the Weather Channel or television news; relatively few directly experience the catastrophes of a Katrina or wildfires. Also, we try to control nature with levees and FEMA.
Until the last century, people had little control over nature even at a personal level, say with central heating and air-conditioning. Rather the relationship between man and nature defined daily life and infused art and literature. In this week’s concerts, Pak said, “Seasons are a metaphor for life for all the composers.”
In a sense the program is a conversation among the composers about nature, and the challenge for the audience is to listen to their different perspectives. As Pak put it, “The theme may seem obvious, but the quality of the music along with the eclecticism may surprise some people.”
The voices could not be more different. Pak imagines going out to a field where artists have set up easels. “All are painting the same scene but each is different,” he said.
Pak has deliberately placed wildly contrasting works against each other: Peter Tchaikovsky, the master of Russian romanticism, against Ástor Piazzola, the Argentine tango king, for winter; French composer Joseph Bodin de Boismotier against contemporary American composer/fiddler Mark O’Connor write for spring; then a riot of styles for summer: the classical Joseph Haydn, baroque Antonio Vivaldi and modernist John Cage; finally, for autumn, Alexander Glazunov’s rich ballet score from old St. Petersburg. The big, lush sounds of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov are bookends for the program.
Is this just “program” music, ear candy for the audience? Yes and no. All are innately entertaining. Glazunov’s and Cage’s works were set for dance. Tchaikovsky wrote “The Seasons” as a series of 12 piano works for home consumption, tossing them off monthly for subscribers of a music magazine. He didn’t have time for much else, because he was working on the score for “Swan Lake” at the time.
Tchaikovsky called the short pieces “bliny,” which translates roughly as “pancakes.” Bliny are to Russians what crepes are to the French, filled with vegetables or meat for a quick meal or gussied up with caviar for special occasions. We’ll hear “February,” written as a piece for Shrovetide, the days preceding Ash Wednesday.
Boismortier and Haydn’s “Seasons” are respectively, a secular cantata and oratorio, checking in at 75 and about 130 minutes each. Soloist Katherine Blumenthal and SDCO will perform a brief selection from each. Boismortier’s voice is that of a 35-year-old, one of the few composers who became rich solely on the basis of his writing, without patrons. The 18th century saw a new awareness of nature and man’s relationship to it. The ornate artifice of the baroque era was replaced with a respect for simplicity and balance expressed in the classical world. Thus Boismortier’s libretto is full of allusions to classical figures like Bacchus and Apollo.
Haydn, writing 80 years later, was in a dire situation, tired and suffering at age 67 from arteriosclerosis. The aria that Blumenthal will sing is just five minutes long, and virtually every line contains sentiments and words — recovery, refreshment, revival, senses, heart, vein, nerve, soul, breast — that suggest his longing for respite.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Antonio Vivaldi is at the core of this concert; his “The Four Seasons” is one of the most familiar pieces in the world. O’Connor and Piazzola both pay homage to Vivaldi, Pak said.
Vivaldi structured his composition through four concertos for violin and orchestra. O’Connor loosely based his “The American Seasons” on Vivaldi’s and took its emotional core from the seven seasons of man speech in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (“All the world’s a stage,” etc.). The piece is a single concerto for violin and orchestra in four movements. Written in 2005, this is one of O’Connor’s most ambitious and adventurous works, and he has said it was an effort to blend all the forms he grew up with: blues, jazz, and folk.
Piazzolla wrote “Cuatros estaciones porteñas” (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”) as four separate suites between 1964 and 1970. He performed it with his folk/chamber ensemble for nuevo tango, a fusion of the dance style with jazz and other musical elements. Rather than the violin, it had a prominent place for his own instrument, the bandoneón, a reed instrument that looks like an accordion. Although he spent much of his childhood in New York and a number of years in Italy, Piazzolla’s music grows directly out of the Argentine heart.
Piazzolla’s work has been rearranged for other instrument combinations and turned into a modern ballet. A chamber orchestra version is now widely performed. Arranged in the late 1990s by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, it features the solo violin/orchestra structure and maintains many of Piazzolla’s metric shifts and harmonies. Violinist Lindsay Deutsch will take on the challenging task of performing the radically different styles in these three “Seasons.”
Most refreshingly, John Cage’s piece injects streamlined modernity into the middle of the program. Cage wrote “The Seasons” as a piano piece in 1947 and dedicated it to Lincoln Kirstein, who with George Balanchine founded the Ballet Society. That same year the Society premiered a ballet choreographed by Merce Cunningham, with an orchestral version of “The Seasons.” (The dance group was renamed the New York City Ballet in 1948.)
Cage gives each movement, each season its own character: winter is quiet, spring rollicks, summer simmers and broils, and fall marches toward the end, when the opening returns to remind us that the seasons are cyclical. Written before Cage’s most radical innovations, the work is highly structured around his concept of “gamuts” or sounds of a single note, a chord and aggregates of sound. The result is an economical, introspective and highly accessible composition.
To return to the question of this concert as ear candy, the answer is also no. In many ways, the theme of nature, while handy, is almost irrelevant, when we consider the many musical elements and styles. This cunning program will sneak up on audience members who pay attention.
Del Mar Country Club, 6001 Clubhouse Dr., Rancho Santa Fe; Friday, Jan. 18, St. Paul’s Cathedral, 2728 Sixth Ave., San Diego. All concerts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20-$55, http://tickets.sdco.org/default.asp. For information, (858) 350-0290.
Cathy Robbins writes regularly about music.