First you’ve got your swoopers: writers who knock out an entire piece in one go, then meticulously primping and pruning the wild beast until it’s just right. At the other end of the spectrum are the bashers: these writers work methodically, never starting the second sentence until the first one is perfect. (They bash each sentence into submission, I guess?)
The main benefit of being a basher is that you don’t have to keep going backwards, rehashing the same material over and over again until it’s ready for prime time. As Vonnegut says, “When they’re done they’re done.” They can close the book and move on, knowing they’ve left it all on the field.
The lure of the swooper, though, is hard to resist. Because the swooper gets to do what I suspect all artists secretly want to do: they can keep working on the same piece forever.
It’s not that we don’t want a finished product. We want to share our work with the world, and we want it to be in its ultimate state of realization when we do. The problem is that there’s really no way of knowing what that ultimate state even is. Every finished product is, at best, a guess at what the ideal version of the piece could be. We do our best, but we never know for sure.
So we revise: we hedge and expand and reimagine and delete. Take, for instance, the works on offer at the Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s season-closing performance last Saturday. The composers represented—Julia Perry, Robert Schumann, and Gustav Mahler—all primped and pruned these pieces over a span of years, resulting in the subtle or dramatic re-envisionings we have the pleasure of hearing today. And what we hear in each of them is the artistic mind at its most stressed—and thus, its most fruitful.
When Julia Perry’s Study for Orchestra bursts into the room, it inspires a host of associations. I’m a movie guy so my mind goes straight to the land of Bernard Herrmann, best known for the iconic string stabs that punctuate his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And when you learn that Perry’s piece was premiered by the NY Philharmonic in 1965, five years after Norman Bates first tried on mother’s wig, it all starts to make sense. One American composer exhibiting the influence of another.
But then you learn that the Study for Orchestra was originally called A Short Piece for Orchestra—not that different but, crucially, not the same. And you learn that it was first scored under that title in 1952, when Perry was all of twenty-eight and the Herrmann–Hitchcock connection was still a few years away. Suddenly the high wire act pulled off by the strings and flutes at the start of Perry’s piece sounds less like the anxiety of influence and more like a wildly original musical mind, bursting with life and wrongly sidelined by history.
It’s not hard to see why William Steinberg, the conductor of that 1965 premiere, took only six minutes to deliver his rendition of Perry’s Study. The stabbing, Herrmannesque string motif provides the frame for this piece, opening and closing it and reappearing occasionally throughout as a sort of page break. At the time, those page breaks must have seemed like the most relevant, recognizable pieces of the puzzle. It’s understandable that Steinberg would rush the in-between parts so that he could get back to those rollercoaster strings.
But it’s precisely those in-between pieces, that stuff between the page breaks, that really demands attention. Curtis conducting fellow Micah Gleason is savvy in this respect. Rather than race through the subtle, meandering passages between the syncopated strings, Gleason correctly identifies them as the soul of the piece. The third passage in particular reveals the sorrow and the longing at the heart of this music. A melancholy lyrical passage gets volleyed around the stage, floating atop a low drone held by the basses. It’s a contemplative passage, and thank goodness Gleason has the patience for it. Everything in this third act is controlled and sustained; instrumental voices speak freely and all they can talk about is their hunger and their fear. A lesser conductor would see this passage as a detour, a tangent, but Gleason knows that this is really what the piece is about: hunger, fear, and the impossibility of overcoming either.
After all this emotional intensity, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor is like a pint of Cherry Garcia, sweet and rich and refreshing. Soloist Amy Yang and conductor Osmo Vänskä are tasked with soothing our anxiety after the attack from Perry’s bottle of lightning.
Schumann famously framed his concerto as a battle between the two main parts of his psyche—which, like Vonnegut, he couldn’t help but give silly names to. Florestan is the adventurer, the assertive and outgoing persona. Eusebius is the ponderer, the intellectual wanderer, the superego that reins in Florestan’s id. Yang navigates the conflict between the two skillfully, but it’s always clear who’s coming out on top. I root for Eusebius, but I’m an optimist. This music needs bombast, and bombast is not Eusebius’s strong suit.
Yang is sympathetic toward the superego—she plays the gentler, more introspective passages with great feeling and intensity—but she is more comfortable reigning over the orchestra than being reined in by it. She’s at her best during the first movement cadenza, where she gets to run the show. When the orchestra returns, it’s as support for Yang, not as competition. Vänskä does an excellent job keeping the orchestral backing soft and breezy, blending it into the background of Yang’s tapestry. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is especially pronounced on this piece, making it more of a collaboration than a spotlight for virtuosity. Vänskä and Yang walk this line gracefully, making for a nuanced and dynamic interpretation.
Schumann wrote the first movement as a standalone piece four years before the full concerto was completed—another confirmed swooper. But as prodigious as Schumann’s gestation period was, it pales in comparison with the epic journey from inspiration to publication charted by Mahler’s First Symphony. And it might just be a testament to the swooper’s ethos that his decade of creative agony produced a work that’s still paying dividends more than a century later.
The unsung heroes of Mahler’s First, and maybe of music in general, are the bass players. This is especially true in the second and third movements, in which the bass section sets both the rhythm and the atmosphere for the music to come. It was a real pleasure watching the Curtis basses attack the opening bars of the second movement with the kind of ferocity that the music demands. Vänskä keeps the tempo up here, so that the ländler is especially bouncy, a tipsy and exuberant peasant dance made nearly manic by the thundering bass line. Moving on to the restrained, lurching funeral march at the top of the third movement can’t be easy after all that drunken revelry, but the basses show off their dynamism here, luring us into Mahler’s hypnotic parody of “Frère Jacques” and setting the darkly comic tone for the music to come.
Best of all, the Curtis basses looked to be having fun—a real treat in a classical concert environment, where fun often seems like a four-letter word. Any sign of vivacity onstage is usually localized to the conductor’s podium, where the maestro is all but expected to be a stormy and dramatic presence. The 70-year-old Vänskä, for instance, remains a strikingly animated baton wielder, drawing intensity even from minor details in Mahler’s score. The players, on the other hand, are the very model of stoicism, poised and uniformed and synchronized. It was encouraging to see some lightness up there, some levity, some joy.
The austerity of the classical stage—the almost Catholic set of customs and rituals observed by audience and performers alike—can be alienating. Do we think of this music as pristine, an artifact too delicate to be touched by the grubby hands of the hoi polloi? If so, that’s a shame. Because if Perry, Schumann, and Mahler have taught us anything, it’s that art, like education, is about making mistakes. It’s about getting it wrong for five, ten, fifteen years before you finally give it the stamp of approval, and even then you’re not so sure. It’s a frustrating, blissful, never-ending search.
Curtis will lose a healthy portion of its symphony orchestra when the seniors graduate later this spring. I hope those seniors don’t stop having fun onstage when they ride off into their professional futures. I hope they don’t sacrifice their joy on the altar of dull perfection. Because the perfect never learn. Only through making mistakes can you stumble onto a masterpiece.
[Curtis Symphony Orchestra at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center] April 15, 2023; curtis.edu