Live Review: Catching Up with Karita Mattila and Nietzche at the National Symphony (2009.06.26)

Mattila5When last we saw Karita Mattila, this blond soprano was biting the lips of John the Baptist – after his decapitation. She again gave Richard Strauss a workout with Four Last Songs. The conductor, Andreas Delfs, pitch-hit this gig for Mikko Franck in what was billed as an all-Finn tour de force: Finnish conductor, Finnish composer and Finnish soprano.

When told of the change, we lamented bitterly, because now Finn composer and conductor were out of the picture leaving us only the sun of Karita to light up the hall. We were to hear Helsinki’s own Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Manhattan Trilogy. This exciting composer was hand-picked by Sibelius himself to get a one-year stipend to go to Julliard – a move that paid off. Instead of his symphonic poem of much promise with movements Daydreams, Nightmares, and Dawn, we got Frederick Delius. A bright, impressionist daub of music, Deluis’ Walk to the Paradise Garden – an intermezzo from the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet – didn’t clinch this opener. Unless of course, we wanted a delightful snooze. The voilas obliged to create a rich fabric of mossy music we could bed down in. The only spice and tremors sprang up from the woodwinds. The only decent subtlety came from the full-throated evensong simplicity of the principal flute.

We all woke up the minute Ms. Mattila took centerstage. Her voice was clear and bright, absolutely belted over the orchestra. But I hardly see Karita having trouble with Strauss’ four songs: “Spring,”September”,Going to Sleep” and “Sunset.”  Just reading those titles you can guess nothing could be more German! “Spring” opened delightfully Tim Burton-esque, a little unsettled before shifting into usual season-loving light mode. “September” gave a lovely opening orchestral push illustrating a vivid whirl of falling leaves — as per the lyrics “summer shudders.” Karita’s voice swelled up and out marvelously on “for a while yet by the roses/It tarries yet,” And her last note bled seamlessly into a deep horn solo. “Going to Sleep” put the darker cellos and basses on their first full display, taking us on a descent that only concertmisstress Elisabeth Adkins could sweetly pull us up from with her earnest bow and unaffected touch.

The finale of the evening: Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra attempted to be the same grand, end-of-season climax that Marin Alsop wanted for Baltimore with the Wagner suite. It almost succeeded. For those Nietzche fans, here’s the musical equivalent of a treatise. But you can hardly tell by this music that the inspiration was a syphilis-maddened half-psycho, half saint.

The first Budapest performance of Thus Spake Zarathustra struck composer Béla Bartók like lightning. You can see why from its familiar opening – “Sunrise” – which you can hear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey. I was very impressed with the organ – with its 4,144 pipes – sounding above the orchestra with the chords proper to Nietzche’s playful severity. Organist William Neil got my standing ovation, his C major chord centered the first climax and his Magnificat made a case for the movement “The Great Longing.” We slip into a trombone maelstrom signaling the arrival of “Joys and Passions.” This movement comes from the depths of the orchestral belly. The great achievement of this sound comes from the pedestal-raised back row of proud bassists – very much “the passions” of this piece (at the BSO, you’ll find the bassists tucked to the side like an afterthought). The second violins take the lead before handing off the “joys” to the first violins and flute. True to the traditional philosopher’s fear of the passions, here’s where all hell breaks loose. The symphony bearing down so hard you feel some chest reverb. Now we are awake! Harp and horn relentless herald what the musical equivalent of a 100 m dash. That would be a ridiculous scherzo followed by a full-on Viennese waltz. Very Straussian – it’s describing Zarathustra’s watching Cupid and wood-nymphs dance, as trumpets flirt with violins.

But enough dallying, says the composer, bringing us back to a more somber, questioning mode. All performance long, my eyes were on a great tall ladder, next to an even taller single brass chime – at the same level as listeners in the choristers – and a lone-looking music stand. When would it be struck? The anticipation was killing me. Then, finally, in “Song of the Night Wander”, a percussionist races up the black-draped ladder, steadies himself, and strikes. Midnight rings into being across the hall in ever-softening tones after a satisfying fortissimo first chime.

After that, Strauss’ epilogue vies for the “ineffable” but falls short. The basses again hold the orchestra force, striking note C against the strings and woodwinds’ B major. All so quiet you hardly feel the true conflict that’s seething underneath. Like the midnight chime, the two groups sound their repetitions softer and softer. The basses hit their pizzicato last.

Until the 2009-2010 season begins, you can find the NSO at Wolf Trap for everything from Final Fantasy the video game score and Carmina Burana, to John Williams’ soundtracks and La Bohème.

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One Response to “Live Review: Catching Up with Karita Mattila and Nietzche at the National Symphony (2009.06.26)”

  1. E.K. says:

    Strauss was a musician who, it was obvious to all, truly cared only about the notes, and this is why when we caught him, our soldiers protected him. These are the kinds of mad people, these sorts of composers and soldiers, I love.

    I will not tolerate Nietzsche. He said such horrid, ultimately lethal things about my relatives, without ever having met them, that I have no stomach for him.

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