Concert Review: NSO’s The Principals

The nonet.

And Louis Spohr.

What do they have in common?

They both seem to be rarely if ever heard these days. An older gentleman who I see at (literally) every concert I attend waved to me excitedly during the intermission, shuffling over with great haste to tell me “I have lots of books at home on all sorts of composers, but I’ve never heard of Louis Spohr.” I said it didn’t surprise me, and said that it wasn’t that way during the man’s life. The illusion of success…

He was, as somewhere I now forget put it, ‘the Germans’ answer to Paganini,’ a friend of Beethoven, and apparently a highly-respected composer and performer in his day, but now… hardly anything. His four clarinet concertos are apparently still in the repertoire, but not so much his ten symphonies, eighteen violin concertos, thirty-something string quartets, ten operas, or really anything else. And after tonight, I wonder, if these aforementioned works are anything  near the caliber of what we heard this evening, why on earth he’s faded to near invisibility.

But that’s for another time. The nonet is like nothing I’ve ever heard. We had, as the name suggests, the principals of the NSO (with an apparent swap out for viola), including violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Nonet.

Spohr’s nonet was a commission, but more importantly it was a challenge, one that the composer readily accepted. It was, orchestration-wise, what confetti would sound like if you could hear it. Let me ‘splain.

Confetti only happens (or should only happen) on special occasions, when it trickles down from somewhere in Times Square, flitters down in flashing colors to mark the arrival of the new year, or of the opening of some new institution, etc. Since each instrument was its own section, and treated very independently, the vibrance of the sound of this nonet was incredible. While each instrument had its brethren either by family (woodwinds, strings, except for horn) or range (violin with clarinet or flute; bassoon with cello; etc.), each instrument worked of the others in fascinating ways to create a sound that was united in its purpose, unified, but highly colorful and expressive, an incredibly fine balance between solo-like transparency and a combined ensemble-ish sound.

The content itself, as a piece dating from 1813, at turns brought to mind both Beethoven and Mozart, but was clearly from the hand of neither. A spectacular work, one that shows a fantastic attention to detail, but also a solid overall musical concept, of beauty on both small and large scales.

The Brahms I’ve actually never heard in its original nonet form. The orchestral version is indeed wonderful, but it’s a different feeling to hear it as a chamber piece. Again, everyone’s kind of on their own, and while there’s no section sound or whole ensemble to blend into, Brahms seemed to be thinking much more orchestrally than Spohr was. Again, Spohr was working specifically for a challenging and vivid nonet sound, while at times in the Brahms, we have all four strings, or the low instruments (cello, bass, bassoon, horn) working in harmony to create a solid wall of sound, and sections are present, though they continually transform and morph.

It’s rather more expected, perhaps, to have a symphonic piece that lasts 40-45 minutes, as the heft of the work seems fitting with the larger orchestra. Spohr’s work was around a half hour, and in four movements, but Brahms gives us a bit more length, divided into six movements, while some are rather short. The overall effect, then, is less one of letting each ‘soloist’ shine as in Spohr, but rather sounding the depths of the combinations and potential of the ensemble, working in larger blocks at times, at others cute and dainty, giving the work a more expansive feel.

It was a pleasure to attend this evening, and while I (obviously) didn’t exchange a word with any of the performers, it felt like a chance to get to know them better. We see their faces from afar, leading their sections and getting a solo here and there in whatever piece might be on the program, but to sit in a recital hall, just meters from them, in that more intimate setting, felt like a privilege, as if each of them had something to say, as if we were each personally invited. It helped that the audience was extremely polite and respectful, except for a (far too) young girl behind me who got fidgety halfway through the Brahms (and even asked, quite disappointed, as the fourth movement began: “There’s more?!” She couldn’t have been a day older than 5.) It was a delightful evening. I would love to hear more chamber music and more Spohr.

More Spohr! Stay tuned for that. Eventually.

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