By DAVID MACFARLANE
Monday, December 2, 2002
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was doing an old chestnut the other night, and I almost didn't go. Mozart's Jupiter Symphony is justly popular, deservedly well known, frequently played on classical radio stations, recorded by almost every orchestra on the planet, and performed in concert halls with steady regularity. These are all essential characteristics of an old chestnut -- characteristics that tend to keep the snobs away and that might have kept me at home the other night had I not had the brief good sense to send my snobbishness packing.
Mozart composed his Symphony No. 41 in C Major in 1788, three years before his death. Practically speaking, he was at a low point of his career, reduced to asking his friends for money. Musically, though, he was at the height of his powers -- a fact that his last three symphonies makes perfectly clear.
They are, by any standard, masterpieces, and yet they were composed during the difficult, uncertain, and often unhappy last few years of his life. The cruel contradiction between Mozart's inability to achieve stable, material success and what we now think of as his unquestionable musical genius is one that should give every "let the market decide about the arts" pundit pause.
That, over the centuries, the market missed Mozart, but found Andrew Lloyd Webber, does not inspire me with the greatest confidence in its musical discernment. If Mozart's contemporaries could not recognize what would prove to be one of the great achievements of Western art when they heard it for the first time -- they said that the Jupiter (not the name Mozart gave it, by the way) was too dense, and too complicated -- surely we should be more than a little cautious about the new creations that we applaud and the ones we dismiss.
But we tend to be very quick to dismiss, and especially quick with their downward thumbs are the lovers of old chestnuts. They have their standards, and not much lives up to them, it seems. Not very long ago, when the Toronto Symphony was struggling through the kind of financial crisis that threatens orchestras everywhere and that has, in this country, pulled more than a few under the waves, one of the complaints heard frequently from disgruntled "music lovers" was that the orchestra played too much "new stuff" -- or, worse still, too much "new Canadian stuff."
Mozart would certainly have sympathized, but not, I suspect, with the grumpy and the disgruntled. I imagine that his tears would be shed not for those who want to hear Beethoven's Ninth, or Mozart's 39th, or Haydn's 95th over and over and over.
Mozart's sympathies would lie with whatever young, heartbroken, insolvent genius, Canadian or otherwise, we have not the ears to understand -- yet.
Equally egregious, it seems to me, are those whose camp I almost joined the other night when I found myself thinking that perhaps I'd heard the Jupiter often enough. For some reason, as I debated whether or not to make the trek to Roy Thomson Hall, I was visited with a moment of uncharacteristic wisdom. I asked myself, "Well, hang on a minute. Just how many times have you heard the Jupiter?" Even if I were the most enthusiastic and peripatetic Mozart enthusiast, and had, let's say, attended 100 performances of the Jupiter in the past 25 years, would I have exhausted the mysteries, the complexities, the playfulness, the dark shadows, and the bursts of radiance that Mozart wove so majestically through this most majestic of symphonies?
I might as well have asked myself if I'd seen enough glorious sunsets. And so, off I went to the symphony.
The right decision, as it turned out. In part, because the acoustically renovated Roy Thomson Hall is such a revelation. Hearing anything there is a pleasure. (Well, almost anything. I'm not certain about George Bush, but whoever decided that the gala for the Queen should open with MacArthur Park, the most insipid -- to say nothing of the most non-Canadian -- song in the world, was definitely playing on the moronic side of the street.)
Cakes that melt in the rain notwithstanding, no chestnut is too old when the hall rings as clearly as this one now does. Hell, I'd go to hear the William Tell Overture, or Pachelbel's Canon. But the Toronto Symphony, under the baton of the gifted Quebec conductor Bernard Labadie, brought such freshness and vitality to the Jupiter,I noticed during the final movement that everyone around me was leaning forward in their seats -- not to hear properly, as might have been the case in the old Roy Thomson Hall -- but because the music was so glorious and so exciting it was difficult to sit still.
I felt I was hearing the Jupiter for the first time, and that extraordinary sensation, I realized, is the connection between the long-established and the absolutely new. It is the direct line between the National Ballet's staid and traditional La Bayadère and Toronto Dance Theatre's innovative and imaginative Converse or Matjash Mrozewski's haunting A Delicate Battle at the Hummingbird. It's the reason why there's no contradiction between going to the Gauguin and Matisse show at the AGO and then visiting the Ydessa Hendeles Foundation, or Bailey Fine Arts, or the most adventurous galleries out along Toronto's Queen Street West.
The debate is a false construct. There's no real argument between the lovers of old chestnuts and those who wouldn't be caught dead at Messiah later this month. It's just that they don't talk to one another often enough. Or, perhaps more to the point, they don't hear one another as often and as clearly as they should.