In a recent episode of the radio show “Exploring Music,” hosted by the wonderful Bill McGlaughlin, the composer John Corigliano spoke about the importance of surprising audiences, of giving them something unexpected.
During his pre-concert talk for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Randall Swiggum, in discussing Brahms’s first symphony, said that listening to the work reminds him of how often we are drawn to experiences of order, truth, and beauty.
The two statements are not inherently opposed to one another, to be sure. Order is not the purpose of every piece. One can find surprises even in a well-known and well-loved piece, a point Swiggum made elsewhere in his talk. And an unknown piece can be orderly but boring. But sometimes I worry that devotion to an older piece (and its aesthetic) closes listeners’ ears to the joy of being surprised, maybe even compellingly disoriented, by that which is unfamiliar.
The current MSO program features the overture to Rossini’s opera Semiramide; William Walton’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, from 1956, with Alban Gerhardt as soloist; and the aforementioned Brahms Symphony No. 1.
The big contrast in the program, of course, is between the Walton concerto and the Brahms symphony. DeMain’s publicity statement says that he chose the Walton in part because the MSO had never performed it before. By contrast, they’ve played the Brahms symphony nine other times.
The concerto is a beautiful piece. Taking full advantage of the cello’s reputation as a passionate instrument, Walton composed long, winding solo lines that sing, reach, and turn in unpredictable ways. Especially in the first and third movements, these extended passages were deeply expressive, and at various points the orchestra shared similarly stirring music and elsewhere settled into more sparse accompaniment. The middle movement provides textural and stylistic contrast, with faster, shorter gestures carrying an almost frenetic energy.
On the whole the composition is introspective rather than flashy, though it showcases a wide range of techniques. The first and third movements, for instance, have the cellist creating both melody and accompaniment by playing two strings simultaneously; if you couldn’t see the musician, you surely assume it is a duet between two instruments. The piece ends quietly, resisting a loud, triumphant statement, much to the consternation of some early listeners.
Gerhardt’s performance was gorgeous — technically adept and expressively convincing. The orchestra filled their role wonderfully as well.
And yet at intermission I heard several people around me say either that they weren’t that excited by the piece or just plain didn’t like it, and that they were waiting, perhaps impatiently, to get to the Brahms.
To each her or his own, I know. Certainly the Walton didn’t have as familiar a path forward as did the Brahms. And also, to be fair, it turns out the orchestra played the Brahms very well. It is an enormous piece, and the musicians were self-assured and united from the first moment. The soloists were particularly good, especially in the pretty middle movements where the winds had numerous opportunities to shine.
But I appreciate DeMain’s choice to keep broadening his programs. It’s not a new piece, exactly — it was composed over 60 years ago — but in a concert world otherwise defined by the forceful, 19th century aesthetic of Rossini and Brahms, it is a surprise and a delight to stretch the aesthetic.