Sunday, October 30, 2005

MTT and Strauss' Don Juan

I know it's still a little early for Thanksgiving, but lately I've been quite grateful to be among brilliant musicians and to get the opportunity to hear and learn from them. One of my favorites is pianist Jeremy Denk, who this weekend wrote a captivating blog posting on fortune cookies and chamber music.

Also, I've been intending for a while to set down some of my favorite moments from the past few weeks' visit by New World Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT is one of the most inspiring musicians I know, so I try to keep my ears open whenever he's around.

I thought I would divide my collection of wisdom culled from MTT's rehearsals and seminars into three posts, with one for general musical advice and one specifically for bass players. In this first post, though, I want to share some ideas about one of his most brilliant interpretations, Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan.

"a musical evocation of the desire to party"

The opening of Don Juan contains some of the most exciting, frenetic, instinctual music ever written for orchestra. It's also among the most technically demanding, a reminder that "the enjoyment of classical music is inseparable from analysis." That was a lesson MTT's teacher Ingolf Dahl taught him, a challenge to never get so carried away by the impulsive momentum of a piece that we lose track of its intellectual framework. In this case, MTT described the opening as a melange of hyperactive overture styles from Wagner, Weber, and Berlioz.

If music is a delicate balance between instinct and intellect, most of us naturally fall to one or the other side. Only very rarely can someone ideally combine thought and passion without careful training and practice. And that practice doesn't only involve technical ability, but our emotional makeup as performers. Within the whole heirarchy of technical knowledge, musical understanding, and instinctual emotion that we bring to a piece of music, there is a level of personal involvement which MTT emphasized quite a bit. He encouraged us to develop our own associations to the music we play - a dizzyingly fast slew of triplets might trigger memories of a raucous party and the rush of tossing a friend into the pool.

"amorous snarls"

That's how MTT describes the muted horn part in an early section of Don Juan, just after the maniacally thrusting opening. It is just a brief moment, but a representative one in a piece he calls "a musical character study in selfish male sexuality." Finding the right colors and characters to make it all work is a challenge for the whole orchestra (not just the sexually selfish males!)

I find his approach to developing a musical character really fascinating. He talks about taking things apart, finding the right feeling in your head and heart outside of the musical context. When he demonstrates this, he will sing a fragment repeatedly, often just an interval or a short motive, in a strange and very expressive voice - he sounds like some kind of moaning animal at times, and yet he finds just the element of longing or despair or amorous snarling that he wants us to capture.

"the bruise you keep on poking"

There is a long, plaintive oboe solo midway through the piece which spins out around one repeated note. MTT had a great extramusical description of that obsessive quality: it is as though you've developed a bruise on your arm, a sensitive spot that hurts every time you touch it. And yet just can't stop poking at that spot, compulsively reliving the painful sensation again and again.

Melodic repeated notes often demand our most imaginative efforts to avoid sounding dull and prosaic. I love the analogy of the poked bruise, because it suggests how each repetition might carry a new painful twinge. MTT suggested treating a repeated note as a singer might, giving a different word to each repetition. Just as one can never step in the same river twice, we should hopefully never reproduce the same note in the exact same way!

1 comment:

Naomi said...

i was wondering if you know where i can get any information about the themes in strauss' Don Juan
Thanks