Echoes of War Resound in Disney Hall


Considering the epochal nature of World War II and how its aftermath has essentially bequeathed to us our world of today, the disappearance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sixth Symphony” from concert programs and recordings, at least in the United States, is a scandalous omission in our collective cultural memory.

“[To] anyone who is not deaf or doctrinaire, this symphony spells a word of three letters: WAR,” Frank Howe declared after the premiere of the “Sixth”. Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary from the composer himself, the critics – for once – got it right. Though perhaps it would be more precise to call the work a “postwar symphony.” Anger and sorrow over the war that had just ended mingles with unease and even gloom over the future yet to come. It is one of the most powerful and significant artistic creations of its period, ranking with the likes of Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” as well as the wartime symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, Arthur Honegger and Moroi Saburō.

Contemporary audiences agreed. Just a year after the score’s premiere, the work had racked up over 100 performances internationally, while Leopold Stokowski and Sir Adrian Boult practically raced each other into the recording studio in order to have the honor of conducting its recorded premiere. (The former edged out the win, beating out the latter by two days.)

But as Andrew Manze reminded the Disney Hall audience last week, the “Sixth Symphony” had not been heard in Los Angeles since 1981 (and prior to that had not been heard since its local premiere in 1958). The performance statistics for the symphony elsewhere in the United States have not been any better.

Manze, who has undertaken a recorded survey of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies for the Onyx label, made the “Sixth” the centerpiece of a Los Angeles Philharmonic program that was one of the most refreshing this season. His swift and dramatic performance of the score clearly demonstrated that the fault for this symphony’s present relative neglect lay not with its composer, but squarely with the often too timid tastes of musicians and audiences.

The performance was revealing, too, for allowing the listener a hearing of a side of Vaughan Williams not often presented: that of the rugged maverick who navigated an often lonely course between modernism and traditionalism during a time when both sides were locked in fierce battle.

British performances of Vaughan Williams tend to blunt the startlingly sharp edges of his music, the result not unlike seeing an image through a gauzy filter. But in last Thursday’s performance, Vaughan Williams’ “Sixth Symphony’ emerged in sharp detail; the aural equivalent of Orson Welles’ deep focus shots. In this, Manze’s background in period performance, where lean and clear is the interpretive ideal, paid significant dividends. But the uniquely crisp and colorful sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was the key, imbuing the score with an American sense of swagger and edge rarely heard in Vaughan Williams – and all the more welcome for it. It was a performance that brought to life this Janus-faced score in a way rarely heard in or out of the concert hall, simultaneously a document of its time as well as a burningly relevant declaration to listeners of the present day.

The performances of the Grażyna Bacewicz and Mozart works that preceded the Vaughan Williams were also of exceptional calibre.

Bacewicz’s “Overture” was a knotty and compact work whose cheerfulness belied the time and place where it was composed, in the depths of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Fusing elements of Nielsen and Bartók into a personal idiom, the work was a fine curtain raiser for the program.

No less delightful was the beautifully shaded and eloquent performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 18” with guest pianist Richard Goode, aided by the playfully bucolic winds of the Philharmonic.

But there was no mistaking that the program built up to the Vaughan Williams. Hearing the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s superb performance of the “Sixth Symphony” – and rehearing it again and again in one’s memory – gives one pause to think what wonders they could reveal in the composer’s other symphonies. How regretful, then, that if the past is any indication, local audiences may have to wait for another decade or so to find out the answer to that.