liner notes from the beav

the beaver calls bullshit on carlos.  whenever i heard him talk about his brilliant program music for a time of war (which was fairly often during the thrilling run-up to carnegie hall), coach kalmar claimed the musical selections were not meant to be interpreted as political.  this is one rodent who respectfully disagrees.  i mean, c’mon – a more fair and balanced line-up might have at least included Beethoven’s wellington’s victory or papa haydn’s military symphony or wagner’s ride of the valkyries.  instead of simplistic, black-and-white, romantic notions of war draped in patriotic glory, the listener encounters a more difficult and nuanced 20th century musical landscape of existential questions, gruesome descriptions, defiant submissions, and cold dissonance.  there are moments of shock within the program to be sure, but they are distinctly devoid of awe.  the first half of the set list features a beautifully anxious triptych of musical compositions that blend so seamlessly, they sound like a 5-movement symphonic suite written by a fictitious charles adams-britten.  (btw: for those unfortunate folks who didn’t catch a live performance, it’s worth noting these works were purposefully strung together without applause in the concert hall; the lack of clapping on the album captures the contiguous spirit of the real deal.)  and supplying music for the harrowing second act?  the decidedly non-fictitious brit ralph vaughn williams.  

this massive and profound program begins with the unanswered question, composed by transcendental pacifist charles ives.  keeping an unwavering vigil throughout, the softest congregation of strings you’ve ever heard remains unfazed –  despite the repetitive interruptions of an inquisitive offstage trumpet and an increasingly disruptive gang of woodwinds.  (hardly acting) principal flutist alicia didonato paulsen quickly sets the standard for technical excellence and emotional clarity – a benchmark the entire band meets throughout the recording.  even though ives’ composition is by far the shortest piece in this collection, it paradoxically opens up a musical window that gazes out onto eternity and timelessness.

the haunting questions persist and the magical tones of the wound-dresser begin.  left coast composer john adams created this piece by wrapping his music around the words of walt whitman.  and oh, what words: the breathing rattles… the bloody stump… gangrene… so sickening, so offensive.  the frequently gruesome text is a written reminder of the poet’s time as a military hospital attendant during the civil war.  sanford sylvan, the baritone prophet, offers a trance-like interpretation of whitman’s words, and as jun iwasaki’s ethereal violin weaves around his voice, the entire band is elevated to a higher emotional plane.  the musical reading escalates with jeffrey work’s searing trumpet crescendo, until the tone mercifully changes with the phrase some are so young and a final remembrance of soldiers hugging uncle walt and kissing his bearded lips.

created in 1940 as a commission from japan to celebrate their dynasty’s birthday, benjamin britten’s sinfonia da requiem was unsurprisingly rejected by the empire because of its markedly non-celebratory nature.  not only did the 26-year-old british composer entitle each of his three movements with references to divine judgment, guilty tears, and eternal despair, he even dedicated this musical provocation to the memory of his parents instead of say, oh, i don’t know… japan?!  a life-long peace-monger, britten undoubtedly knew what he was doing: flipping the bird across the pacific.  a couple years later he would even tell his own government to eff off, refusing to fight for the allies by registering as a conscientious objector.  with ominous bass drumbeats introducing the piece, britten’s disdain for war is reflected throughout the brief but powerful score, but nowhere so in-your-face as in the middle section, where a shrill flute mocks an attempted cavalry charge that soon descends into a whipped march towards death.  a comfortless prayer for eternal rest closes this bitter requiem, thus bringing an end to a tri-fold musical meditation on human existence, war, suffering, and futility.  for the mental health of those on stage and in the audience, an intermission was met with relief.

ralph vaughn williams is so british his first name is pronounced rayf.  much of his music can be described as stereotypically english as well: proper, tranquil, benignly impressionistic… you know, the kind of stuff a classical radio station might play during the 2-3am hour.  however, anyone returning from intermission who assumed they were gonna get a war-time reprieve instead got a rude welcome back with the opening lines of uncle ralph’s symphony #4.  [the first time i listened to it at home, it scared the crap out of me.  go ahead and experience it yourself: crank up the volume and push play.  smack me later.]  the band does nothing less than open up the gates of hell in this symphony… it is fierce and terrifying music where comforting, easy moments are fleeting.  the closing movement is a revelation every time i hear it: sounding at times like a pseudo-triumphant danny elfman soundtrack, a blazing whirlwind of strings and mahlerian brass anchor the entire band in technical precision.  this is death-defying stuff that never gets old.  within the final 30 seconds, a seemingly exhausted orchestra chugs back to life one last time before spitting out several hammerblows to the heart, ending in a definitive burst of absolute self-destruction.

with apologies to alex ross, perhaps the most accurate description of coach kalmar’s entire program comes from one of the composers: vaughn williams supposedly remarked on his fourth symphony: “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.”  i find this music hard to like, but i do find it utterly necessary.  the beaver won’t speculate on why maestro carlos insisted on the apolitical nature of this program – ultimately, it ain’t important.  i’ll just say that for me, whether intentional or not, music for a time of war serves as a powerful acoustic journey of peaceful resistance and questioning of power, and deserves to be listened to again and again and again.  good thing you got the album.

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