Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Tale of Two Live Performances of Pastoral- 6th Symphony of Beethoven and My Musical Journey

Here I recall the two experiences of my life while attending two live performance of Beethoven's 6th Symphony, "Pastoral" and how they stimulated my love for Beethoven and classical music. The two experiences are spread apart by nearly thirty years. First was at UT Austin's Bates Recital Hall in 1989 conducted by Louis Lane and the second was at the Hong Kong's Cultural Center Concert Hall conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy in 2018, and this is a tale of my musical journey with Pastoral.
Louis Lane, Director Orchestra atThe University of Texas at Austin from 1989-92
It is 1989 and my association with classical music is emerging to take shape. I had now access to the Music Library of UT Austin which used to be in a building adjacent to Bass Concert Hall. There I remember viewing some music videos and issuing music cassettes/CDs. Later I would issue several such CDs and would then copy them and listen to them on my walk-man and car. Eventually, I would be building a collection of scores of such CDs bought from stores.

I think I learned about the Bates Recital Hall performance of Beethoven's 6th Symphony from my friend Shafquat Rehmani, a fellow student at UT in the Physics department. We had some great time together at various events of Pakistan Student Association and hanging around the West Mall and the Union Building. I still recall his wonderful coffee. Often we would meet around West Mall and Union Building. I found his interest in classical music unconventional. I would often meet him walking around with a walkman (what else) listening to different genres of music. I saw him frequently  playing the piano in the Student Union building. Once Shafquat tried to explain that he was composing and playing the music on the fly. I could see his passion that had made him a self taught musician. I think he had not taken a formal course in music.  Once I was listening to a CD of Bernard Haitink conducting 5th Piono Concerto of Beethoven and while discussing about it, Shafquat mentioned that this conductor is the right one to listen to Beethoven because he really does justice to the passion and energy of Beethoven through his vigorous interpretation. A comment that I registered then but did not quite understand till much later. I would later realize that there is a tremendous difference that conductors can make to the same piece of music. More on this later in my upcoming post on "Does the Conductor Plays the Orchestra or Does the Orchestra Plays the Conductor".

I had gotten the program for the performance of Beethoven's sixth symphony "Pastoral" that was to be conducted by Louis Lane who at that time was the Director of Orchestra at UT Austin. I have the copy of the program somewhere that I would be posting here. The entrance ticket was $2 which was the most that I could afford in my meager monthly scholarship allowance. (I often regret not being able to attend the Ravi Shankar's concert because I could not afford the $5 ticket).

Attending this live performance of classical music orchestra was my first experience. And what an experience it was. To me the formal attire of the musicians and the viewers was fascinating. The formalities of being ushered in and then being seated were interesting to observe. Musicians who I presume were all students of the music department coming in with their instruments and settling down and the sight and sounds of the initial tuning of the instruments before the performance is still a vivid memory. I would later often watch Live from Lincoln Center on PBS to get the taste of performances that I could not afford.

I was listening to the entire 6th symphony for the first time in my life; actually this was the first time I was listening to any symphony in full formally and live. The program flyer had the timings for each movement and the program for the evening. As the music unfolded, I tried to connect the various movements of the symphony with my imagination: (i) Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside, (ii) Scene by the brook, (iii) Merry gathering of country folk, (iv) Thunder. Storm, and (v) Shepherd's song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm. The movements’ titles to these movements were given by Beethoven himself although initially he thought that the music should tell its own intent without any hints!

I remember Imran Baqai, Shamoun Siddiqui, Nasir Rahman and others accompanying me to this performance at Bates Recital Hall. I also recall Imran Baqai appreciating the rhythmic part of the second movement that I had not noticed and alerting me to the beauty of the flute in the andante' of:
"the slow movement, the Scene by the Brook, in which Beethoven starts to spin what becomes a nearly continuous stream of semiquavers over a hypnotically repetitious harmonic background and collection of melodic motives in the woodwind and strings – until, that is, the stream reaches a still pool, and a chorus of birds attract our attention, as wanderers through Beethoven’s symphonic stream-scape" [Symphony guide: Beethoven's Sixth ('Pastoral')].
I faintly recall seeing couple of movies on PTV in late 1970s and early 1980s about Beethoven where he is beginning to go deaf and in his torment often goes on long walks in the woods and on the prairies. Relevant portions of 6th symphony must have been playing in the background in those scenes where he is going by the brook, and gets caught in rain and storm. I vividly recall one such scene from one of those movies where he is vigorously writing music. These two movies must have planted the seed of my interest in classical music.

Later I would be falling in love with this symphony and must have listened to it hundreds of time since then. My longest exposure was that of a CD/cassette of  recording from Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance by Georg Solti. I brought the entire set of the 9 symphonies from the library and copied them to cassettes on the deck of a friend of mine Khalid Mehmood in the apartment on riverside. I did this project before my honeymoon trip to Florida.  Throughout this trip in 1990 December I was playing these recordings of the symphonies and different places that we passed through our made memorable by tunes from these cassettes. Whenever I listen to the fourth movement of Pastoral, it reminds me of our long dash towards Tampa, Florida at night which we could not make it in the end. The scores of cassettes containing these and other pieces of musics had been a constant companion in my car through our trips till 1995 while I was in USA. Later through the 1990s till today through my extensive and frequent trips across Pakistan. I found that listening to Beethoven would energize me and its riveting quality through engaging continuous ebbs and flows would not let me doze of and go to sleep. Whenever, I feel sleepy on my long drives I always pull out a Beethoven and that would keep me awake and mentally active. There is this enticing quality in Beethoven to engage your body and mind and not let your thoughts wander. That is quite unlike the melody of Mozart. More on this later.

 Every few months, I typically  go through the phase of revising Beethoven's third, sixth, seventh and ninth especially.  These cassettes have remained a constant companion in my car, until the CD players replaced the cassette players and I then carried the CDs, and now the USBs have taken over. I still remember some of the recordings on my cassettes that were much better than the conductors whose performances I got on CDs.

These exposures to Pastoral also include my first viewing of Fantasia in early 1990s in USA. Fantasia has the animated version of the 6th Symphony in which Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939-40. I would later possess the video cassette and  then the CD of Fantasia and must have watched it scores of times with my children, and still enjoy seeing it whenever it is put on. I was fascinated to see my third one when he was only 4 repeatedly watching Fantasia and appreciating the abstract animations of music and liking it immensely.

Slowly and gradually, over the course of hundreds of such listening of Pastoral and other favorites, I have now come to appreciate how different conductors remember the entire music of symphonies which typically is around 60 minutes and variations that are hard to remember for those with untrained ears. These conductors conduct the orchestra without the sheets of music in front and conduct entirely from their memory. For example, I have seen Daniel Barenboim doing this at the BBC Proms on youtube and saw Leonid Bernstein conducting the 6th as well as the famous Beethoven's 9th Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonica at the time of Fall of Berlin Wall in the historic concert of 1989 on PBS.

The point to note is that once you have listened to a piece of classical music several times, you are not just listening to what is being played currently, your mind is processing the currently playing sounds in the light of the previously played part and are anticipating what is about to come next. The currently played music prepares you for what is coming next, even at times I feel I can anticipate the particular ebb or flow that is going to succeed the current tune, even though I do not know how to read music and have never done a formal study. Some pieces that I really love, I can hear them playing in my ears without listening. You may have felt that too!

Vladimir Askhenazy Conducting Pastoral
at Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall on May 25, 2018
On landing in Hong Kong to attend AACSB Conference in May 2018,  among the first things that I did was to find out if there is a symphony being played somewhere. Lo and behold I found that Vladimir Ashkenazy is going to conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on the evening of 24th and 25th of May. As my check-in time at the hotel was 3pm and my flight arrived early, I left my luggage at the concierge and went to see a couple of museums and did not came back to check in the hotel until I had located Hong Kong Cultural Center and obtained my ticket for the program for the performance on the last day of the conference on 25th. 

The conference was at Sheraton Hotel , which is only a few minutes walk from the cultural center. After the conference ended at 5pm, I had to kill the time in the vicinity till 8pm when the concert was due to start. As the hotel where I was staying was some distance from Sheraton. I decided to visit Space Museum which is next to the Cultural Center. I took a quick round of the exhibits because I realized that they are actually designed for younger kids to stimulate their interest in astronomy and space travel. However, it was fascinating to learn from the museum how young kids can be introduced to complex scientific phenomenon in an enjoyable, engaging, experimenting and intellectually stimulating manner through do-it-yourself type of mechanical exhibits. This provided me with several ideas for project based learning. However, the round of exhibits was quickly over and I still had more than a couple of hours to kill. I decided to take a circular ride in one of the double-decker buses that was leaving the Star Ferry Pier which is next to the Cultural Center.  I wanted to experience and observe the metro bus network of Hong Kong which is among the largest in the world and an inspiration for the congested urban cities of Pakistan. From the upper deck of the bus I had a good view of the people using the buses, bus stops, routes etc. Eventually, through the return bus, I was at the Concert Hall well in time to be properly seated and prepared for the feast of the anticipated performance: 
"When Ashkenazy came out, he wore his usual jacket with a white turtleneck shirt underneath. And he just wanted to get the program started with right away, beginning with Russian composer Alexander Glazunov's Chopiniana, a delightful, accessible piece, and the conductor kept the orchestra in military precision.

Next Yoo came out in a bright red sparkly dress to perform Glazunov's Violin Concerto, just over 20 minutes that was definitely a vehicle to show off the violinist's talents, from playing chords to plucking, soft to loud. She had her eyes closed for most of the performance, setting the pace and enjoying herself on stage. 
Finally after an intermission, Ashkenazy was back to conduct Beethoven's Symphony no. 6, Pastoral. It definitely evokes pastoral scenes of idyllic rolling hills, flocks of sheep grazing and young lovers having a budding romance. 
The five movements seemed to be compressed into three, as Ashkenazy didn't want to waste time with formalities. The drama began to build in the third movement onwards with the wind section holding their own. And soon it was all over, and the Maestro went around shaking the musicians' hands." [Ashkenazy Returns to Hong Kong]
It was wonderful to see the live performance of the Pastoral Symphony. I have been starved of these performances. During my stay in USA, I could not afford the professional concerts, and in Pakistan I have not been aware of any such performances or the presence of a full orchestra. It was therefore a feast for me to be in a live performance of a full symphony orchestra and experiencing the conducting of the famous Vladimir Ashkenazy. I also stood in the long line to get his autograph on the CD that I bought there.

All during that performance I was recollecting the many experiences of listening to Pastoral, the many players. I was visualizing all the time the flowing water notes with my experiences of gentle brooks' flowing waters and the bird calls beckoning the listener. I was paying special attention to the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets)  Here is the video linking these birds with the music and shared by Shafquat Rehmani on reading my post. While going through the fourth movement I recalled myself in that Tampa Trip and the other places and times which had been made  memorable listening ti this music. I could see Louis Lane conducting the first performance and all that happened in between till today. The second performance was a trip down the memory lane. What a superb conjunction of two performances separated by around 30 years.

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