December 05, 2013


The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Programs 1 & 2; 3 & 4; 5 & 6; 7 & 8. Naxos DVDs. $19.99 each.

     Comparisons between Gerard Schwarz’s All-Star Orchestra TV series and the justly famous Young People’s Concerts led by Leonard Bernstein from 1958 to 1972 are inevitable. Like Bernstein, Schwarz offers a series of programs on various aspects of classical music, with commentary in the Schwarz series by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. Unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur; his shows reach across generational lines because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras, and of course all are in color – but the technical capabilities are not always fully realized. It would have been good, for example, to show just why passages in Beethoven were considered unplayable in the composer’s time, or to delve into some specifics of the difficulties inherent in performing modern works.

     Some lines from the Bernstein shows deservedly became classics, such as the conductor’s remark that “music does not mean anything” and his demonstration of that observation by conducting bits of the Richard Strauss tone poem Don Quixote while offering a narrative totally different from that actually associated with the music. There is nothing even remotely that clever in The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. But this series has pleasures of a different sort – many of them lying in the selection of music, the juxtaposition of old works and new, and the truly interesting aspects of music that the eight programs explore.

     Most of the works here are presented complete, as those in the Bernstein series were not – although the word “complete” has to be stretched a bit in some cases. The first program, “Music for the Theatre,” offers the complete suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, but not the complete ballet, and the complete second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé but, again, not the full work from which the suite is drawn. Still, the suites appear in concert more often than the full ballets, and the narrative about the Ballet Russes and Sergei Diaghilev is an interesting one – as is the pairing of the Stravinsky and Ravel pieces with Bright Sheng’s Brahms-inspired Black Swan.

     The pairing is less engaging on the second program, since it involves one towering masterpiece, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, along with Harmonium Mountain by Philip Glass. But the topic here is an intriguing one: “What Makes a Masterpiece?” The interviews, including ones with orchestral musicians, make the show interesting, and the extremely different ways in which Beethoven and Glass employ short rhythmic and melodic elements are intriguing.

     There is something worth watching – and hearing – in every one of these programs. The third, “The New World and Its Music,” inevitably includes Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, pairing it with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Avanti! The latter is a very different take on the American experience, but this program is one of the lesser ones here – while the fourth, “Politics and Art,” is one of the most interesting. This focuses on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, a long-popular and long-controversial work specifically stated by the composer to be his response to “justified” Soviet criticism but thought by many to conceal critiques of Stalin’s regime in its apparently triumphal finale. By raising real issues of music’s place in society, this program delves more deeply into issues than do many of the others.

     The fifth program, “Relationships in Music,” could have been more intriguing than it is. It explores the relationship of the Schumanns (Robert and Clara) with Brahms, which is indeed fascinating, but it avoids some of the more-turbulent and not unrelated musical relationships of the same time, such as those swirling around Wagner. And the illustrative works here are not the best choices: Schumann’s Third Symphony (“Rhenish”) works well, but Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture is largely atypical of the composer and not the best representation of him – however delightful it is. The sixth show, “The Living Art Form,” is perhaps the least successful of the eight, since it is the most didactic and includes only modern works: the third movement of Richard Danielpour’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (the complete movement, but not the complete piece); Samuel’s Jones’ Cello Concerto; and Joseph Schwantner’s “The Poet’s Hour – Soliloquy for Violin.” Although all this music has points of interest, none of it is especially distinguished, so it does not pull viewers/listeners into the narrative as does the music in the other programs.

     The final DVD in this series, containing the seventh and eighth programs, is more gripping. The seventh show, “Music’s Emotional Impact,” could well have been the first, since it discusses a major element of music’s appeal and does so through the lens of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – a popular and immediately accessible work. The modern work here – Blast! by David Stock – is intended to show a contemporary composer’s handling of the “fate” motif, but succeeds mostly in showcasing Tchaikovsky’s far greater talent at pulling an audience’s emotions in the directions in which he wants them to go. The eighth show, the only one with a composer’s name in its title, is a bit odd and disappointing. It is called “Mahler: Love, Sorrow and Transcendence,” and includes a few Rückert-Lieder sung by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, the first movement (and only the first movement) from the Symphony No. 2, and two modern works that do not complement Mahler’s very well: Augusta Read Thomas’ Of Paradise and Light and Bernard Rands’ Adieu. The problem here is interpretative – not in terms of Schwarz’ handling of the music, which is fine here as in all these shows, but in terms of picking these specific Mahler pieces to illustrate the show’s theme. The first movement of the “Resurrection” symphony is indeed funerary, but it marks the funeral of the hero of the First Symphony, as Mahler himself said – and is supposed to be followed by five minutes of silence before the work’s second movement, which leads eventually to the transcendence of the finale. This is not a good movement to take out of context, but that is what is done with it here. And the two modern pieces, which ostensibly represent contemporary contemplations of the age-old themes of life and death, are simply not very effective when juxtaposed with Mahler’s works.

     The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz has its share of ups and downs, and without a central guiding light of Leonard Bernstein’s caliber, the series never develops the sort of personal audience connection that Bernstein’s did in a way that makes the Bernstein series timeless despite its comparatively primitive production techniques and the long-out-of-date fashions worn by everyone seen in it. Nevertheless, the Schwarz shows have a great deal going for them, presenting some genuinely thoughtful analysis and some very involving commentary, with a generally good (if not always convincing) mixture of masterpieces of the past with works exploring similar themes in more-recent times. Schwarz himself lacks Bernstein’s considerable charisma as either host or conductor, but he does a solid, workmanlike job as the central figure in these musical presentations, and his orchestra – whose members came together for these shows from multiple U.S. ensembles – plays efficiently if not always passionately. These are, on balance, fine made-for-TV programs that will be of most value to people with some interest in classical music but little understanding of it – although the issues raised in certain shows will resonate with longtime classical-music lovers as well.

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