By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE ‒ Kudos to Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot for the programming acumen to pair the world premiere of David Lang’s symphony without a hero, which the orchestra commissioned, with its antithesis, Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). If only his first of two performances of both works, on Feb. 8, had made a convincing case for either work.
Lang, a Pulitzer Prize for Music recipient, attended the premiere. He revealed in the program notes that his initial inspiration to become a composer came from seeing a movie of Leonard Bernstein conducting Shostakovich’s First Symphony. His subsequent total immersion in Shostakovich’s oeuvre, as well as Russian culture and language, eventually led him to the poetry of the composer’s contemporary, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).
Discussing his journey, Lang wrote that he fell in love with Akmatova’s “introspective, memory-laden… kaleidoscopic and strange… inscrutable in any language” “Poem Without a Hero,” dedicated to her friends and countrymen who died at Leningrad during World War II. (Think Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7.) Lang felt Akhmatova’s poem addressed “distant memory of people and things so personal to her as to be almost unknowable to us.” Taken with the idea of “distant memory,” he wondered if memory in music could work similarly, as “a wisp of something delicate and precious that might hover vaguely someplace beneath the surface of an overwhelming and oppressive present.”
From such speculation evolved symphony without a hero, which Lang described as “a 28-minute-long tune” in which many different versions of a single melody are superimposed onto each other, “simultaneously, in layers of slower and faster speeds, in the foreground and in the background, with greater or lesser detail.” His goal was to create “the feeling of a distant, elusive memory by making a tune that was constantly in the process of revealing itself, without ever revealing itself completely.”
Because the Seattle Symphony didn’t provide a translation of Akhmatova’s poem in its program guide, we were left on our own with an initial “tune” of sorts in which a weighty groan from horns, cellos, and basses was superimposed over cries from the higher strings and woodwinds. (“Superimposed” may be an inaccurate word, but from my seat in K1, on the right end of Benaroya Hall’s center orchestra section, the low end predominated.) The seemingly endless minimalist repetition of this quasi-tune lacked any of the mesmerizing evolutionary and multi-tracked time disassociation elements that make some of Steve Reich’s work so compelling.
It took what felt like several minutes before the emergence of any variation in Lang’s presentation of profound emptiness. Bold and audacious in its uncompromising despair, its progression of drone, cries, and da-dah-hmmmm-da-dah percussion continued in one form or another until, at least halfway into the piece, it ceded to a radiant response from the strings and higher-pitched instruments. While a steady bass foundation eventually returned, it did not overwhelm the glimmers of hope and resolution from on high. Finally, presumably 28 minutes in, Morlot ceased his steady beat and the work ended.
After intermission, Morlot began the six-section Heldenleben by painting a hero whose various descriptors, presented in disparate lines, never cohered into a convincing whole. Perhaps my seat on the right (in a row that has, on previous occasions, seemed ideal) and a concomitant lack of color saturation played a part in my inability to sense any overarching understanding of Strauss’ achievement. For whatever reason, the tonal beauty, color palette, and romantic effusions that made last week’s concert by the Seattle Symphony so enthralling were in short supply.
The second section, “Des Helden Widersacher” (The Hero’s Enemies), was presented by woodwinds that neither simpered nor scampered. As adversaries, these “enemies” seemed so unfocused and lacking in personality as to be unworthy of the time allotted to them.
Concertmaster Cordula Merks’ big contribution, “Des Helden Gefährtin” (The Hero’s Companion), was competently played but devoid of the inherent romance. Merks’ presumed “she” sounded overly meaty and earthbound and wanted the silver and light central to Strauss’ idiom. Only if the goal was to invoke the lack of warmth often attributed to Strauss’s spouse, Pauline de Ahna, did Merks and Morlot succeed.
Morlot was at his best when he let loose in “Des Helden Walstatt” (The Hero at Battle). With no recourse to visuals — let alone Game of Throne‘s blood — he instead indulged in the score’s huge cries, trumpet heralds, multiple clashes, and all manner of bombastic excess. Victory was unmistakable, accompanied by a grand finale in which the hero’s theme emerged triumphant.
Far less satisfying was “Des Helden Friedenswerke” (The Hero’s Works for Peace) which — after lovely contributions from harpist Valerie Muzzolini Gordon’s — suggested that the best contribution our hero could make to planetary peace would be to quiet down and make his way to the retirement home. “The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World” (Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung) may have attempted to set the seal on our hero’s journey, but it lacked all sense of romantic sunset. With nothing soaring or heart-touching to offer, the big ending felt rather flat. Left to the imagination was any sense of the ecstasy so sorely needed throughout the piece.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.