The Tuba and The Totalitarianism

One Friday, 13 March 2015, at the Romanian Atheneum
Johannes Brahms: The Tragic Overture, opus 81
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto in F minor
Ionel Dumitru: Romanian Dance nr. 2 for tuba and orchestra
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony nr. 5, in D minor, opus 47
“George Enescu” Philharmonic Orchestra

An original, still very attractive concert of the “George Enescu” Philharmonic Orchestra did not succeed in filling the auditorium of the Romanian Atheneum. What a shame, this concert would have been worth a bigger audience. In these circumstances, how can we protest and say that the Palace Hall is not suitable for a symphonic concert?

A programme that challenges you to all sorts of metaphysical connections: a tragic overture, followed by a tuba recital. And, from the perspective of Shostakovich’s apocalyptical symphony, the tuba acquires the signification of a tuba mirum, the trumpet of Archangel Gabriel, announcing the end of the world. A convention of the eschatological imagery, that only the music can make you re-evaluate. In Latin, “tuba” means “trumpet/horn”, even though the instrument we know as a “tuba” is the lowest-pitched instrument in the brass family. And when this instrument has to play Vaughan Williams’ concerto… the low sound gets a darker, still such a caressing colour, that it becomes the only explanation for the fact that the same Biblical trumpet can also announce Christ’s birth (because the Archangel Gabriel is also responsible for “Annunciation”, to be celebrated soon, on March 25th).

I assume all the raised eyebrows of the atheists, of the agnostics, of the extremist laymen; this is the only explanation I can find for this paradox of the tuba: an instrument capable of generating a warm and enveloping sound, that looks like heavy, silky gold cloth, in the solo parts (Bydlo in Mussorgsky’s  Paintings is just an example), or a violent rhythm, like a sword’s hit, in the ensembles of a symphony (Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony is another example at hand).

A detail not mentioned on the poster advertising the concert: apart from the soloist Siegfried Jung, last night we had two more tuba players on the stage. The conductor Walter Hilgers played the tube for many years in different German orchestras, but mainly in the Wiener Philharmoniker and at Bayreuth (this is not unusual, as conductor Tiberiu Soare trained as a tuba player first). And in Shostakovich’s symphony, the baton was passed to the young Laurențiu Sima, the tubist of the FGE orchestra. And I am talking about a real baton, because, as incredible as this may seem, the tuba of the Philharmonic has just been improved with a new mouthpiece, “custom made”, with the stamp of the quality given by Siegfried Jung!

The concert started normally and almost prudently, I might add, Brahms’ Tragic Overture was played correctly, with no exaggerations. After all, Brahms’ dilemma between the adjective to choose for his overture, tragic or dramatic, was best represented. Almost no tragic, but very dramatic.

Obviously, the moment of attraction of the first part was the concerto for tuba. If you had ever listened to the The Lark Ascending, then you could have anticipated what was to come. If not, good for you: Vaughan Williams’ music can very well be discovered with this concerto, composed in1954, for the jubilee of London Symphony Orchestra. If the first part reveals the resources of an incredible virtuosity of the instrument, repeated in the last part, the Romanza of this composition, that does not last more than 15 minutes, is swaggering. I did not believe that this original concerto can have so much poetry, so much contemplation, comparable to the sensation produced by a dusk in a country landscape. As for Siegfried Jung, I have all the admiration for him, for the manner in which he maintained, unaltered, the colour of an instrument, no matter how difficult it was for him to play quickly in the high register, almost continually, showing us the very romantic side of this brass. It’s like Boris Godunov who moves us with his crazy humanity, that  goes beyond the political dimension, it’s like the implacable Philip II who becomes the equal of the humblest of us all when he gives in under the weight of power, in Ella giammai m’amò

Siegried Jung - (c) Romeo Zaharia
Siegried Jung – (c) Romeo Zaharia

On Thursday and Friday there was another tubist in the Atheneum auditorium: Ionel Dumitru, who stayed in our memory as a real wizard of the tuba. Imagine Paganini’s Caprices played on the tuba! It is the measure of an artist’s virtuosity, unfortunately too little known by the general public. Of course, Ionel Dumitru, who left the stage for ever in 1997, did not play last night. But we had the proof of this restless dexterity, the Peasant Dance nr. 2, a real jewel, one of the few compositions where the traditional ethos is used with a good taste that we rarely find in other Romanian compositions. Siegfried Jung had no problem in presenting this perfectly, because the balance between intellect and tradition was very  well set, never too idiomatic, never too precious.

Shostakovich… Before talking about Symphony nr. 5, you need to take a deep breath. Fortunately, a symphonic concert includes an interval. And this is even more useful after poetry and before an Apocalypse with no Salvation. Because this is what the last part of Shostakovich’s Symphony talks about: not the triumph of proletkult, as the “connaisseurs” declared, but the total defeat in front of Stalin. This has never been the story of the prodigal son returning home. It has always been the story of a man brought in chains back in the camp and sentenced to do his own re-education. A musical camp.

Is there a musical idiomacy of communism? I would say yes. Half a century of totalitarianism in Easter Europe and 70 years of sovietism in Russia have introduced in the genes of interpreters coming from the Eastern part of the continent an empathy for this symphony, that the audience here understands best. A Western conductor can tell the story, but he will tell it the same as the movie Doctor Jivago is and is not a movie based on Boris Pasternak’s book. And maybe this subtle remoteness of Walter Hilgers, unavoidable in the absence of an organ of belief (Tarkovski), was the perfect thing. Shostakovich’s symphony ends implacably,  oppressively. It is a dark apotheosis of the stalinism. An emotional rendition, like the one given by Christian Badea a few years ago, would have remained as the only memory of an evening that also meant light, not only sorrow.

The first part started not very encouragingly: when the piano entered, there were some lags in the orchestra, noticeable, but quickly fixed. Then the concert continued impeccably, with a well suited attention for the instrumental solo parts. For example in the second part, the waltz theme, innocently played by the violin (excellent Cătălin Desagă, concertmaster at Justus Franz). In this second part of the symphony, Shostakovich is guilty of what George Orwell called, in 1984, the crime of double thinking. A pure, innocent melody, a waltz, like a game, a theme repeated by the violin and by different brass players, then repeated by the orchestra brutishly. As if we had in front of our eyes a child who learns to read better and better, and then he gets to be a member of the choir  who chants ideological cries. This is sarcasm in music. And this is also a measure of Jdanov’s team lack of culture, as they did not notice Shostakovich’s ambiguity and forgave him, and had him back in the party. Is Symphony nr V a programatic work? Partly, yes, because it has a declaration of intentions even in its subtitle: A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism. The culturniks read, as always, ad literam. The audience of 1937 saw beyond words, in the choir of brass of the orthodox mass for the dead, in the third part of the symphony, a moment where the music let them mourn their deads.

Walter Hilgers conducted the orchestra through this symphonic speech with the efficiency of a solid musical experience, as he avoided both the ambiguities and the lack of limits. A serious reading. Respect. He even took the liberty, in the end, to let some hope in a place where Shostakovich had no hope at all: the peals of the brass were thus contained by the balanced manner. A baton that stopped the music from hitting us…

Photo Gallery – (c) Romeo Zaharia:

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