Schubert’s “Great” Symphony (aka “Bombast”)

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Forgive me, I’m headed toward a slam of one of the great orchestral numbers. Last night we heard our favorite orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, preform several Schuberts and one modern amazement: Betty Olivero’s “Neharot, Neharot,” which means “Rivers, Rivers” in Hebrew. The review in the StarTribune suggested that we might adore Schubert’s “Great” and last symphony–the poor man died in his early 30s, probably of syphilis. But that Olivero’s work might challenge us, especially the recording of Israeli women singing the word Neharot and elegies and love songs, to mourn the war dead from a Lebanese Hezbollah attack in 2006.

The opposite happened. As we watched the stage hands prepare for the Olivero–hauling out rack after rack of gongs, two marimbas, not to mention a huge snare drum–we prepared for bombast. There was even an accordion, strange visitor to an orchestra. The viola soloist might be drowned out. But no. This haunting piece begins with a subdued, grating overlap of sounds–mostly strings, plus the accordion. Pitch hardly changed; there was no melody. Then came the voices, and last entered the rich, vibrant song of the viola. I am rarely moved to tears by a piece of music (movies, all the time). But after the accordion added an occasional echo of Jewish celebration (Think “Fiddler on the Roof” very tamped down), and the viola returned again and again, soaring and dipping, I honored the composer Betty Olivero, the violist Kim Kashkashian, and the orchestra for transforming modern warfare into a sublime evocation of loss. This should be recorded!.

Intermission, then Schubert’s “Great.” I know, I’ve set you up to expect a slam. Starting at the end and reeling back, let’s note that the orchestra won a standing ovation. There was a lot to appreciate in its rendition–especially the third movement, “Scherzo: Allegro vivace,” which the orchestra played with jaunty care and tenderness. Schubert is best at evoking the glories of nature–music that sends us to a leafy mountaintop, beside a sparkling stream, surrounded by the trill of birds. In his songs and, for instance, the “Trout” Quintet, Schubert’s music brushes us with nature’s delights. The touch is tender or stormy but always in the service not of bombast, but of evocation. We are enfolded in sound that carries with it nature’s most delicate kiss or deep roll of thunder, and soon we have forgotten we’re in an auditorium, listening to humans with instruments. Pan, the god of woods and streams, has us all in thrall. We might dance in the fairy ring. (Schubert, the program notes remind us, was expert at writing dances.) After the experience, we walk away feeling refreshed and joyful.

There are delicate, danceable moments in this last “Great” symphony, but except for the third movement, the work is overwrought and repetitive. This was not helped by excessive crescendo and almost military precision on the part, let’s say, of the conductor. Schubert’s own ineptitude with orchestral heave and thrust–think Beethoven–is, of course, at the heart of the trouble. Out of a beautiful lyric passage suddenly thrusts gigantic bombast. Over and over we are subjected to this. The melodies and dynamics are repeated until we want to cover our ears. It’s a bit like eating a delicate salad, which is suddenly smothered in mountains of mashed potatoes. We get a little nibble, our taste buds are alive and delighted, than “Bam,” down comes the weighty potato.

This work was snubbed and not performed until ten years after Schubert’s death. Since then it has enjoyed a great appreciation, so say the notes. Our favorite orchestra did not embarrass themselves but in the hands of another conductor, more sensitive to the work’s limitations, they might have given the work more coherence, greater nuance and variety. As it was, the too emphatic treatment of the “big sound” parts–truly I could hear the emphasis coming and covered my hears– brought out the weakest elements, leaving us to stand and applaud the flutes, piccolos, woodwinds, French horns, trumpets, and trombones, who were less subject to the conductor’s manic approach.

But we were happy: we had experienced one piece played to perfection, and to our surprise, it was modern!

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