In his vivid review of the Goerne concert, Janos mentioned in passing
the US premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's Metamorphosis. It might be the same
piece called Verwandlung 2 which was supposed to be premiered in San
Francisco in March - the titles mean the same thing, too.
Anyway, whatever the case, it's quite an interesting piece. It
was commissioned by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for a programme
highlighting Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn and Rihm? What a surprise!
But the programme, performed in September 2005, worked extremely well.
It highlighted Medelssohn as an innovator and revolutionary in his own
way. For so long the cliches about Mendelssohn have prevailed, so it's
refreshing that Leipzig should present him in an original way.
The programme started with the overture to a Midsummers Nights Dream.
This was once "new music", too, astounding audiences in its own time.
The Shakespeare play, after all, is about transformation. It subverts
conventional classical format by introducing parallel worlds of humans,
then subverts that still further by magic and fairies. Even without the
play, though. this is strikingly dramatic music. Against dark blocks
of sound, images of light flicker past, like spectres only half seen.
Nothing is quite what it seems: you have to concentrate and get into the
strange, equivocal atmosphere that hovers beyond reality. The Leipzigers
probably know the music from infancy, but here they were playing with
vivacity, as if discovering, with the audience, the inventive subversion
in the music. Riccardo Chailly, their new chief conductor said that
this orchestra is way too good for "sterile repetition", and sure enough
they seemed to thrive on Mendelssohn made electric by lively playing.
Rihm is pretty much the cutting edge of new music, but Verandlung seemed
like an organic groth out of Mendelssohn' s world of magic and invention.
Suddenly, Chailly's emphasis on the "bewitchment" melody in the overture
made total sense - it was as if Rihm's dream grew from the same inner
source of wonder. Moreover Rihm madfe a deeper tribute to Mendelssohn,
by acknowledging Mendelssohn's belief in the value of "old" music. In
Mendelssohn's time, most music was "new". Even Bach was not extensively
popular: Mendelssohn was fairly insytrumental in reviving Bach's reputation.
So, just as Mendelssohn reinterpretated Bach for his audiences, Rihm
reinvents old with the new in his work. That old device, a drum roll,
announces changes of direction in Verwandlung, which themselves adapt
and develop earlier themes. Several times, the music seems to be building
up to a climax, but then suddenly subsides, until another wave starts
again. It's just like the surprises and upheavals in the Mendelssohn
The second half of the concert was Mendelssohn's Lobgesang. Transformation,
again! It's part symphony, part oratorio. There's evenm m,oree cjhoral
singing here than in Beethoven's Ninth. It's so huge and dramatic it's
a kind of musical spectacular, transcending the boundaries between church
music and theatrical experience, spiritual music adapted to celebrate
the spirit of a community. For Mendelssohn it represented a synthesis
of the music of the past which he loved so much, and of the Zeitgeist
of his own time. For him, progress meant the triumph of spiritual and
human goodness. His much criticized "smoothness" was part of this belief
in harmony and integration. Innovation doesn't always have to "shout".
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