Monday, February 18, 2008

crazy Dane goes mainstream

Music critic and blogger Alex Ross has a new article about Carl Nielsen in next week's New Yorker, titled "Inextinguishable." Ross points out that a lot of the hot young phenoms of the orchestral world -- Gustavo Dudamel, Paavo Jarvi, Alan Gilbert -- have been recording and advocating the Danish composer. Which means a lot of orchestra players are going to have to shed some nasty pages:
Orchestral players, percussionists excepted, tend to groan a little when Nielsen shows up on their music stands; his habit of writing furiously fast figures, and then passing them from one section to another, relay style, can make even an ensemble of virtuosos sound like a mess. Audiences, for their part, often go away from Nielsen performances pleased but a little dazed, not sure what hit them.

I've always had a great time playing Nielsen symphonies, and his "Oriental Festive March" from Aladdin is one of my favorite unknown pieces ever. I know what Ross means about those groan-inducing passages, though. Each Nielsen symphony seems to have a page or two of just random, blindingly fast 16th-notes. And they're often unison with all the strings, so any mistakes will sound extra-gnarly.

Ross makes the point that a frenzied, feisty quality -- maybe a bit gnarly, even -- is needed in this music. He reviews a "startlingly polished" performance of the 3rd Symphony by the Curtis Institute's orchestra, conducted by Alan Gilbert, which sounded "oddly, too professional". Well, perhaps that's not so odd -- Curtis has some amazing players, and the last way they want to sound, especially for the music-director-elect of the New York Philharmonic, is unprofessional.

Still, I think there's a certain quality of reckless (but still precise and unified) abandon that's needed in this music, as in the music of Mahler or Sibelius. Abandon with precision -- it's a tricky sort of alchemy. Maybe as orchestras get more familiar with Nielsen, we'll all become a little more precisely unhinged, and master that controlled-frenzy quality.

Read Alex Ross' article "Inextinguishable" here.


Joe Lewis said...

Reckless precision is what makes hard rock so great! If only more orchestras would dig in, let their hair grow, and bang their heads.

But please, no spandex tuxedos...

There is a great recording of the Inextinguishable from the San Francisco Symphony under Blomstedt. One of my favorites. It is a hot piece.

Edsqu said...

He writes so well for percussion, The 4th mvt of the inextinguishable is about as exciting as it gets in my mind, bring it on!