By Ted AYALA
What was the neoclassical impulse in classical music other than a kind of wish to return to some idyllic, childhood-like time?
Southwest Chamber Music explored that idea in a very well assembled program last weekend that explored this return to musical purity and innocence with each of the composers represented taking very different routes to achieve that expression.
Not that neoclassical music ever really indulged in sweet reminiscing of childhood itself. The “Back to Bach” movement was no neo-Luddite exercise in cultural nostalgia or reactionary conservatism. Adapting 18th century ideas, infusing them with modern rhythms and harmonies, the best works in neoclassical form at once demonstrate that possibilities for expression in traditional forms had not been exhausted, and that the comparatively sober and austere techniques of Haydn and Mozart could be startling, even audacious, to audiences accustomed to a century of Romantic plush.
The return to classical modes was also liberating for composers, freeing them from the heaviness that had dulled and decayed Romantic music. Hewing to closed forms, favoring smaller instrumental ensembles over the enormous Romantic orchestra – in short, stripping away the fat and excess of the 19th century paradoxically widened the range of expression.
Igor Stravinsky’s sardonically witty 1923 Octet is a choice example because nothing in the 19th century could even approximate this work’s gallumphing grotesquerie or its uncanny ability at turning classical forms on their heads.
Its three brief movements, with a central theme-and-variations movement serving as the work’s center of gravity, convey a world of unbuttoned, forthright expression that would seem positively uncouth in the 19th century salon. The work’s sassy humor not only ensured an enduring popularity for the Octet, but left a deep imprint on many younger composers inclined to musical hijinks, from the likes of Dmitri Shostakovich to Scott Bradley.
SCM’s performance was, itself, a choice example of how the work ought to be performed. Their sense of comic timing, not to mention sheer technical quality, was unbeatable.
British composer Oliver Knussen’s work, on the other hand, has often been very much about exploring the world of the child. His opera Where the Wild Things Are, superbly performed last fall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, both based on the eponymous children’s stories by Maurice Sendak, are no saccharine daydreams by an adult longing to return to a world unfettered by grown-up responsibilities. Rather, they’re often whimsical and surprisingly acidulous recreations of what it is to be like a child: impulsive, impatient, mercurial, but also capable of tenderness and love wholly free of adult affectations and prejudices.
His Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh is the product of a precocious youth of 18, though he revised it 13 years later.
The composer eschewed any reference to the work as a “setting” of the episode with the bees and balloon near the beginning of the first Winnie-the-Pooh book.
“It is, rather, a sequence of faded snapshots and reflections, by an unwilling grown-up, on things remembered from the book, and on what those things meant to him as a child,” explained the program notes.
Members of the audience familiar with Disney’s honeyed, edgeless depiction of A. A. Milne’s most famous creation may have been perhaps a little shocked by Knussen’s version. Its idiom, which owed a bit to Harrison Birtwistle, was frayed, playful, astringent, and contemplative by turns. Soprano Deborah Kamareh made virtual child’s play of the score’s wild demands on her voice, which often required her to sing in the stratospheric extreme of her range, as well as having to navigate wide interval leaps with pinpoint precision. To that she added plenty of her own childish insouciance and brattiness that were ideal. It’s difficult to imagine Kamareh and Southwest Chamber Music’s performance being topped; they simply owned the score.
There is a lingering stereotype, popularized by the film “Amadeus,” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as being a sort of idiot savant-child, a kind of human Aeolian harp with a potty mouth and a Peter Pan complex. Reading his letters should disabuse anyone of that notion immediately. In there one finds a sensitive artist who possessed firm ideas about the what his craft meant, exhibited an absurd and often obscene sense of humor, and had an appreciation of the wider cultural context his music lay in. There is, also, a very adult side of Mozart: subversive, richly sensual.
It was a side that Jeff von der Schmidt and SCM leaned into heavily, giving the music a warm, earthy quality far removed from the icy, porcelain Mozart one often encounters these days. Oboist Jonathan Davis, clarinetist Jim Foschia, and bassoonist Judith Farmer each contributed gorgeously shaped solos that underlined this music’s youthful eroticism – and helped to further the truth, which Stravinsky and his followers in the 1920s discovered, that the 18th century was not as chaste or as innocent as most people imagine it to be.