Mendelssohn wrote his Hebrides Overture in response to his encounter with the wind, sea and rocks of the Scottish coastal isle of Staffa. The Chamber Orchestra's conductor, Dirk Brossé, wrote his new Elegy for Strings to express his feelings about the widespread tragedy of children whose parents have been killed by war. Brossé conducted both pieces during the Chamber Orchestra's opening concert.
Their juxtaposition highlighted one of the issues raised by music that's based on extra-musical subjects:
Should we insist that the music must stand by itself, without any reference to the subject matter? Is there a place for music that derives most of its impact from your knowledge that it was inspired by a particular subject?
Mendelssohn may have written his overture because he was moved by his trip to Staffa, but you could enjoy every bar he wrote even if you'd never read a program note that regaled you with that bit of biographical lore. His music stands on its own.
Mendelssohn's big fanfares may portray the grandeur of Fingal's Cave, and his racing march music may capture the play of wind and wave, but so what? It's a wonderfully varied piece in any case, packed with successful musical effects, and Brossé conducted it with his customary ability to squeeze the maximum value out of every mood and tempo.
Powerful emotion, but…
Brossé's Elegy, on the other hand, would sound odd if you didn't know its subject. Its basic musical element is a short figure, introduced by the cellos and basses and taken up by the other string sections, starting with the violas. It begins somberly but builds in intensity until it becomes a huge outcry. It's a powerful expression of a real emotion, but it wouldn't make any musical sense if you didn't know that.
The outcry is followed by less passionate music that refuses to reach a conclusion— a deliberate avoidance of easy comfort. Brossé's final touch is a complete surprise: the tiny sound of a music box playing over the strings.
Killed on TV
During his post-concert conversation with the audience, Brossé said he added the music box after viewing a newscast in which a woman watched her husband killed on TV, with her child beside her. He had written the Elegy, he said, partly because he was struck by the difference between the child's viewpoint and the adult's. Adults, unlike children, can put a death into a political or moral context that may give it some meaning.
On the other hand, the child in the newscast might not have seen the same thing her mother saw. The child could have gone to bed thinking the killing was just another event on TV, unconnected to her personal reality.
Viewed that way, the music box suggests a child sinking into sleep as if the day had ended normally. To me, it sounded ironic. Other listeners might feel it suggested that the child's life will go on. However you respond, it's an imaginative addition that raises provocative questions.
Brossé is a musician endowed with a novelist's fascination with the complexities of human emotional reactions. His Elegy may require some direct comments from the composer, but the result justifies his explanations.
Trumpeter's star turn
The afternoon's guest star was Alison Balsom, a young British trumpeter who has acquired a formidable reputation via her worldwide TV appearances and the critical acclaim heaped on her recordings and concert appearances. Her onstage work lived up to her billing, and her post-concert comments displayed a sensitive, intelligent understanding of the historical knowledge that contemporary trumpeters can apply to their performances. But I would have been more excited if she'd chosen a different showpiece.
The Hummel Trumpet Concerto is one of the major works in the (not very large) repertoire for trumpet and orchestra. It's a good piece, but it falls short of the glories of the great Baroque trumpet works.
Its first movement is marked allegro con spirito, but Hummel didn't give the soloist much spirito to work with. Its best movement is the andante, which Balsom turned into a flowing, beautifully controlled night song.
Franz Schubert marked the first movement of his Fourth Symphony allegro con brio, and Brossé finished the afternoon with a performance that brought out all the brio Schubert built into the score. Schubert's symphonies can sound dull in the hands of conductors who settle for routine, workmanlike performances, but they jump with life when they're led by a conductor who's determined to make every detail count.