Encores and Curtain Calls

Encores & Curtain Calls: PVS’s ‘Cream of the Crop’

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

— John Ruskin

It’s time for the Pioneer Valley Symphony’s “Cream of the Crop” concert, Saturday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m., at the Greenfield High School Auditorium, 1 Lenox Ave., Greenfield.

Well, they don’t actually put it quite that way — they call it their “Immortal Masterpieces” concert. But, either way, it comes down to core classical hardwood. This will include Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March” from his opera, e_SDLqGötterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), the last in his operatic saga “The Ring of the Niebelung.” Also being performed is Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor — perhaps the world’s favorite Dvorak as well as its favorite concerto for cello — with Israeli-American soloist Yehuda Hanani. While some agree with Dvorak himself, who confided to the Finnish symphonist Sibelius, “I have composed too much,” there is virtually unanimous praise for this concert favorite. Finally, there is one of the most venerable patriarchs of the core classical repertoire, Beethoven’s luminous Symphony No. 7 in A Major.

While I personally believe in the validity of the term “masterpiece,” that is, an overwhelmingly enthralling and virtually flawless artistic creation, no matter what angle one cares to view it from, I remember a somewhat oversensitive composer professor of mine flinching at what was, for him, my too-ready use of the term in describing a piece we were discussing during a music literature analysis class.

My professor’s pained flinch instinctively suggested a generic discomfort with the term, as if, perhaps, everything in the world of aesthetics was in the eye of the beholder. And, so, who’s to say what is and isn’t a masterpiece?

My conscienceless candor on this issue has discomfited endless numbers of “aesthetic relativists” in my time, many of them very intelligent, savvy souls who’ve done their homework and know their stuff, musically speaking. They embrace the seemingly reasonable view that artistic experience is purely subjective, and that, in the end, we all produce our own meaning and value out of a simple (say folk or rock) or complex (orchestral or electronic) set of fundamentally neutral stimuli.

This seemingly undeniable assertion sounds quite compelling — actually, quite airtight and ironclad in itself — but I don’t buy it and never have, even as a youngster.

Here’s why: as a music-lover and maker, I observe audiences a lot. I study their reactions and responses, the rise and fall of their passion or their boredom, their fluctuating index of joy or gravity. I watch and calibrate their emotional dynamics as a Mozart scherzo, a Beethoven climax, a Barber adagio fills their soundspace and filters into their brains, hearts and nervous systems. I do this during the performance of my own works as well, because I’m very keen on understand just what alchemy my aesthetic intentions produce in the spirits of my listeners.

And it is clear that there are indeed works of art that are reliably utterly transfixing and transformative for a large, open-eared, open-minded percentage of the listening population. There are also others that are routinely perceived as pleasant, perhaps even impressive, but ultimately dispensable.

What ineluctable difference can account for this? Popular taste alone? No, that won’t do, too fickle, trendy, prone to self-delusion. Tradition for its own sake? For example, some might say, “We all know the nine Beethoven symphonies are masterpieces.” That gambit falls apart rather quickly, because once we put the music to a live-performance acid test, almost half of these hallowed creations come in rather low on the scale of actual enjoyment for most listeners.

I hasten to assure that the luminous Beethoven 7th is most definitely not among them!

In fact it’s a genuine masterpiece if ever there was one. Even Beethoven, after its first performance, commented that it was one of his best works — more organic, light-footed and free of pretense than either his monumental 5th or his titanic 9th. Though few seem to have noted it, it bears a distinct resonance to its precursor and spiritual sister, the 6th or “Pastorale”— a joy of gorgeous, seamless symphonic storytelling.

To single out just one of the 7th’s many masterful delights, let’s take the world’s favorite movement, the second, or allegretto. It was so instantly, electrifyingly moving that the audience at the work’s premiere insisted it be repeated then and there. Indeed, while I’ve never counted Beethoven among my own favorite composers, it was the first work by Beethoven whose sheer poignant beauty drew spontaneous tears, and it still does.

Why? Not merely its gravity, its palpably tragic nobility, but something more, something of the person of Beethoven, the man himself. He starts with a somber A minor chord in fairly simple, measured rhythm; not nearly as fateful as the hammer-blows of the 5th symphony, but quietly unrelenting, ever-growing. The soul behind this rhythm is not about to stop his journey — to let the mere obstacles of earth pause his deepening progression toward his spiritual goal, no matter how daunting they seem.

The progression repeats and renews itself, expanding in depth, breadth and complexity each time it reincarnates itself, until it becomes clear that we are listening to no mere series of beguiling chord variations but a rendezvous with Destiny itself. That which seemed small and soft has grown to eclipse all thought and feeling and throughout it all is the unbearable grief and glory of being alive. And so we cannot help but exult and weep, all in one and the same moment.

Is this not a masterpiece?

And this — it should be remembered — from the mind and heart of a man long deaf and despairing because of his irreparable disconnection with the worlds of music and humanity.

Tickets: adults $20; students and seniors, $17; children, $6. They are available at www.pvso.org,
413-773-3664, at the door and at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, Amherst Books in Amherst, and Broadside Books in Northampton.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at

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