Carmel Bach Festival’s “War And Peace”: The Agony, The Ecstasy And The “Pastoral”
August 1, 2011
*Co-written by Weekly Staff Writer Rebecca Robinson and professional musician/Weekly friend, Jamie Schlessinger
It was somewhere in the first movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 3, “Pastoral,” that I got lost on the battlefield. Through the strings’ sweeping melodies, the wistful wind solos and conductor Paul Goodwin’s expert pre-concert introduction, I was transported to a time and place (World War I, to be precise) where triumph and terror coexisted, and solidarity and solitude were separated by gunshots that could fell an enemy or a lifelong friend with brutal precision.
The wrenching power of the symphony, and its performance by the Carmel Bach Festival Orchestra at the Sunset Center Friday night, cannot be underestimated. Ditto the riveting rendition of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “A Man Descending” by master saxophonist Joe Lovano, which was creatively, though ultimately jarringly interspersed between the third and fourth movements of the Vaughan Williams piece. If only the same could be said for the rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 in F Major.
Perhaps it was the fact that the orchestra seemed spent after the first piece; maybe it was the symphony’s settled, almost staid sound, in stark contrast to the emotional tumult of the Vaughan Williams. “It’s really wartime music,” Vaughan Williams said of his third symphony. “…It’s not really lambkins frisking at all…” Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” however, is exactly that; indeed, in Disney’s 1940 animated rendering of the piece as part of its classic “Fantasia,” the “Pastoral” is a pastel-hued wonderland of gentle centaurs, cupids and fauns frolicking peacefully, bothered only by a brief lightning-bolt interjection a la Zeus.
But this contrast was the essence of Friday night’s program, entitled "War And Peace: Landscapes of the Soul." Beethoven's cheery, repetitive phrases and simple harmonies evoke a bucolic scene where worries (and war) need not exist; Vaughan Williams's work, with its ominous drum rolls, emotive strings and lonely bugle calls, takes the ears, mind and heart on an epic journey through joy, fear, hope and grief. The composer's ability to put listeners inside his head, so clearly haunted by his experiences as an ambulance medic in Ecoivres, is what makes the piece so affecting.
Goodwin explained before the performance that he'd chosen to break with convention and insert Turnage's work in between the third and fourth movements of the Vaughan Williams symphony due to the similarities in tone between the two pieces. While it was an inspired choice in theory, and while Lovano's playing was unquestionably brilliant, the saxophonist's jazz improv style didn't quite blend with the orchestral sounds as seamlessly as Goodwin may have imagined, and detracted from the symphony's fluidity. The transition from Lovano's final notes to the clarinet solo that opened the final movement, however, was devastating, and set the stage for a mournful conclusion.
I could quibble about any number of things from Friday's performance - the shaky viola solos, the choice to trot out the old warhorse (Beethoven's Sixth) at the end of the program instead of ending with the more affecting Vaughan Williams symphony, the drawbacks of an audience comprised almost entirely of dry-throated septuagenarians (cough, cough). But overall, the orchestra, led by an outstanding wind section and Goodwin's passionate conducting, gave a memorable and satisfying performance that that brought much of the Sunset Center crowd, myself included, to its feet.