Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading at the Wheel 1

You can have breakfast in bed. Thanks to the internet, you can go to work in your underwear. I have even overheard someone using an urgently-needed public bathroom as their personal phone booth, courtesy of Verizon Wireless. (May their charging cord get caught in their zipper.) But who in his right mind would read at the wheel of his car?

I did, for the first time this morning. And it was almost pitch dark at the time.

To be sure, I was reading a symphony with my ears. But in my books, that's like listening to the voice of a book's narrator with your mind's ear. If listening to a symphony is like reading a good book, I read all the way to work today.

My first Reading at the Wheel experience, facilitated by Sony Walkman technology, was Arnold Bax's Symphony No. 2 in E minor and C major, vintage 1926. The recording, blessedly, dates from much more recently. Otherwise it would have been hard to hear much over the noise of the wheels on the road and the wind whistling through my side window, which was open just a crack to compensate for the dewy humidity and my car's current lack of working air circulation. It was especially hard to hear because, as I learned later, the volume on the Walkman is turned all the way down by default. Until I learned to turn it up each time the power came on, I had to twist the volume knob on the car stereo all the way up. The result was a lot of white noise and just enough music to keep me from pulling over in frustration.

So I heard Mr. Bax's Second Symphony again on my way home. It sounded much more satisfying with the volume knobs in proper balance. In fact, it sounded so good that I listened to parts of it twice. And now, without the accompaniment of highway noise, I'm listening to it again.

Bax was a British guy with a funny little fetish about being Irish. His Second Symphony was dedicated to a Russian-born American conductor, Sergei Koussevitzky, who played a huge role in promoting the music of modern composers. Nevertheless it took Koussevitzky three years to get around to conducting the premiere of this work with his Boston Symphony Orchestra. It wasn't heard on Bax's native soil until the following year, 1930. All this dithering strikes me as remarkable. For from the moment the piece began I was struck by its dramatic power, its tight thematic unity, and its scintillating instrumental colors. I thought: "If this music isn't famous, it should be."

The first of this symphony's three movements begins with an ominous drumroll. Several ideas revealed in this slow introduction are knit into the fiber of the entire symphony. The first idea is dark and brooding, the second savage and threatening, the third pierced with agony, the fourth (introduced with flutes and muted trumpets in parallel motion) exotic and mysterious. Celesta, harp, piano, glockenspiel, and lots of brass join the orchestra as it develops these ideas, building up to the main Allegro moderato by around 4'.

The first theme of this main section, introduced by clarinets, is clearly derived from the exotic motive from the intro. The addition of a xylophone and tambourine enhance its exoticism, like incidental music from a film about travel across the Near and Far East. The melody flows and flowers naturally, effortlessly growing and evolving, evoking now a scene of rural gaiety, now all that is awesome and awful in a major modern city. A pall of dread settles over all, like the kind of night for which words like "miasma" were coined: now the intro's savage and threatening motive becomes the Allegro's second theme. A soulful cello solo pours out its grief into the night, and the night responds with sympathy. Around 9'15" the harps lay down an accompaniment for a magically lyrical episode, delicately shaded with instrumental watercolors.

Mr. Dark & Brooding from the intro comes in at 11' sounding really pissed. A mood of violent agitation throbs beneath the recap of the first theme, allowing Bax to roll out some of his most dazzling orchestral hues and chord voicings. At 13'30" it dies down mysteriously. Flutes and harps play accompanist to a stringy gush of romantic melody. Eventually we recognize this as a facet of the first main theme. Rumors that the movement is about to end in a low-key epilogue prove to be spurious, however. Bax reviews the ominous motives of the slow introduction, building up at last to a closing chord akin to a shriek of fury.

Movement II (Andante) is a bit of a musical pastiche. It begins in a manner that reminds me of one of the weirder, low-key movements from Holst's Planets (which predated this symphony by a decade). This passage morphs into a gushy theme that could have flown straight out of the slow movement of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Later, the music plunges into realms of faerie that savor of Delius, only to follow it up with an impression of Elgar in all his pomp and circumstance. A clarinet tune at around 6'50" signals the first point in this movement where Bax steps out of character and expresses himself without analogy to a familiar type. Now the music builds in genuine dramatic power, adding an organ pedal point to the build-up to a climax based on the opening motive of Movement I's slow intro. After a pause for breath, the music resumes in an entirely new vein, with solos by violin and trumpet that glow with courageous happiness. The movement ends with a sense of one accepting the mysteries and uncertainties of life with a cheerful outlook.

The third and final movement begins with a slow introduction warning of grim things to come. Very soon the main Allegro feroce breaks out with the same sort of demonic energy and quirky yet vibrant melodism that later marked Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. This is by no means the last point in this movement that bears an affinity to Russian music. For a moment, around 2'30", I could swear I'm listening to a Polovtsian Dance by Borodin. Then comes a passage that must have been in the back of Walton's mind when he wrote his First Symphony a few years later. Is Bax stealing or being stolen from? The answer is, apparently, "yes." Too many interesting things happen, in the next pages of this auditory book, to describe without getting in my own way. Let's just say Bax makes bold use of bold ideas, crafting remarkable sonorities that fill the whole range from the deep, organ-reinforced bass to piercing heights that shine with a brassy finish, from massive piles of sound to delicate, intimate moments with solo violin, limpid harp, muted trumpet, and innocent flute. In spite of a few late pangs of anxiety, the symphony achieves a calm conclusion, drifting away as on deep, dark, yet tranquil waters.

I hear tell that Bax's Second triggered shock in its first audiences. The only thing I find shocking about it is that it isn't better known. I think it's touched by genius. Exciting, colorful, splashed with brilliant light and spooky shadows, it has a roguish wit sharpened on the music of many of Bax's predecessors and contemporaries, a serious intellect focused on taut construction and thematic metamorphosis, and a masculine zest that animates everything in a magnetically compelling way. His Second Symphony, in short, proves that Bax was a total stud. Why else would I risk my life reading it (with my ears) while driving to and from work? I've listened to it three times in one day, and I still think it's terrific.

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