Cher Public

The good, the bad and the Haydn

Susan GrahamThe transgressive filmmaker John Waters writes in his book Shock Value: “there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.” Personally, I fancy myself a connoisseur of good bad taste; and, in a striking program at Carnegie Hall last night, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL), with guest vocalist Susan Graham, brought together a wide array of musical proclivities—good and good bad taste alike. 

The program positioned the steady, somewhat vicious perversity of Purcell and Britten within the polite elegance of two Haydn symphonies. On first glance, this is the kind of programming I would normally prefer to truncate (do we really need two Haydn symphonies?) It feels a bit like having to eat your vegetables when pizza and ice cream wait in the kitchen. However, the actual experience provoked an altogether more complex response.

As much as I should celebrate Haydn, for the sake of critical integrity I have to admit he leaves me cold. I find him to be more impressive than moving, and I appreciate his compositions mostly within the context of music history—the “father of the symphony,” his relation to Mozart, and his instruction of Beethoven: two composers I would much rather spend time with.

In other words, I often skip over Haydn in search of something darker, more robust, ruder—shameful, probably—but, all the same, this question of taste is hard to account for: love is blind, and the last time I checked listening to music is supposed to be fun.

That being said, fun was not what I expected to have as I settled into my seat at Stern Auditorium. And yet, under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, Orchestra of St. Luke’s essayed two Hayden symphonies—beginning the program with Symphony No. 75, and closing with Symphony No. 98—with vigor and élan, inducing a sensation not dissimilar to fun. I was pleased.

And, as the program notes from last night’s concert indicate, Haydn’s contemporary reviewers described his music as such: “pleasing” and “scientific,” words that obviously still apply. Scientific. Pleasing. Apt descriptors, certainly, but not quite noteworthy either; it’s hardly the kind of characterization that provokes hunger and fanaticism from an audience, especially one tediously working its way through our current post-modern malaise.

Yes Haydn is pleasing, and the precise construction of his compositions gives credence to the claim scientific, but with all the music there is to hear, why waste time being so well behaved? It’s this politeness I resist, this pleasing and scientific good taste.

However, to jump to these conclusions is to ignore the effects generated by the concert’s keen programming. Indeed, for Haydn provided an ideal counterbalance to the deranged material that constituted the evening’s heart of darkness—the good bad taste I’ve been waiting to tell you about.

I am sure that some will carp at my claim of Purcell for the camp of good bad taste. But, as Susan Graham’s fine, measured singing (though, at times, hindered by the use of a music stand) of “Bess of Bedlam,” “Music for a While,” and “When I am laid” from Dido and Aeneas attested, Purcell is anything but square.

Lovesick, melancholic, cruel—Purcell’s invocations of madness, intoxication, and erotic expiration stood in stark contrast to the refined gentility of Hayden. Indeed, these three pieces probe experiences of erotic fixation, it’s illusory reprieve, and the underlying elements of shame embedded within Eros and melancholy.

From Bess’s mad, outlawed alienation, through the hypnotic, insistent continuo of “Music for a While,” to the degraded Liebestod of Dido’s Lament, Purcell’s musical imagination borders a stance of TMI (too much information!), exposing an interiority of abjection and estranged suffering.

The squeamishness that Purcell provoked was amped up even further after the intermission with Graham’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s cantata Phaedra, in which the singer displayed the more muscular elements of her mezzo-soprano. Here, Britten’s opening measures struck the listener like swift arrows sprung from cupid’s bow, sinking their sharp wedges into Phaedra’s pliant heart.

Yes, poor wounded Phaedra, cougar and MILF par excellence. Britten’s cantata, taken from the seventeenth-century Racine play (translated by poet Robert Lowell), distills the drama to a singular voice, compressing the play’s five acts to a biting fifteen minutes.

Married to Theseus, Phaedra burns for his son (by another woman), Hippolytus. When Hippolytus rejects his stepmother, she accuses him of rape, inciting his father, Theseus, to curse him. Subsequently, Poseidon provokes a chariot accident to kill Hippolytus, at which point Phaedra confesses her role in her stepson’s death. Consequently, in atonement, she commits suicide with “Medea’s poison.”

Britten was long preoccupied with notions of alienation and sexual humiliation, in both comedic and tragic modalities—consider Tytania’s donkey show with Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or, for that matter, Aschenbach’s erotic reduction beneath the image of Tadzio in Death in Venice.

Britten’s attention here is no less perverse, with Phaedra undone by longing for her stepson: understanding her desire as a “defection,” she cannot restrain herself from a demeaning confession. “I love you! Fool, I love you, I adore you!” she spits at Hippolytus, rotten with self-loathing.

Unsurprisingly, what moves this setting beyond an exercise in emotional pornography is the compassion with which Britten examines his subject’s plight. While Phaedra may castigate herself as “inhuman, hateful,” Britten never loses sight of her humanity, locating within Phaedra’s role both perpetrator and victim.

Ultimately, via Britten’s underlying empathy, what surfaces in Phaedra is a labyrinthine psychology, a heroine who speaks to our own unnamed, checked desires.

Graham’s singing was flawlessly produced, brilliant and shimmering, free of defect or wobble. It’s shocking how well preserved her voice is, despite the longevity of her career. She sounds unchanged by age, unlike some of her contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Ms. Fleming). In equal measure, McGegan and OSL were reliable, plumbing the depths of Britten’s music with expert skill.

Imagine now, after such unseemly subject matter, to turn back to the prim formality of Haydn—which, thankfully, was how the concert ended. Indeed, by that point in the evening I welcomed such pleasing, scientific music—if only to cleanse my pallet of Purcell and Britten’s intense tartness.

In fact, I welcomed Haydn, and his Symphony No. 98. Who knew? But I suppose that was one of the more splendid effects produced by OSL’s programming—Bravo! Any orchestra that can get me to relish Haydn deserves high praise, to be sure.

Photo: B Ealovega