OCTOBER 11, 2011
by John F. Fleming
Professor Emeritus, Princeton University
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” You know the old joke question; you know also the answer: “Practice, practice, practice!” I have found that in practice, however, for the talentless the N, Q, and R lines are a better bet. So it was the Subway Route that took me there on Monday night for the Carnegie Hall début of the new Salomé Chamber Orchestra.
Among the pleasures of association with a great university are the opportunities to bask in the reflected glory of distinguished colleagues and to enjoy the varied and infinitely surprising talents of brilliant young people. During the last decade of my active service at Princeton the University Orchestra under the leadership of Michael Pratt–a teacher-musician of great talent–reached a very high level of excellence. I became a loyal fan, and all the more so since several of my own students played in it over the years. About the time I was retiring there were three siblings named Carpenter, each of genius quality, among the string players. Their pleasingly ecumenical given names were Sean Avram, Lauren Sarah, and David Aaron. I never taught any of them in class, but I made the slight acquaintance of the latter two simply by being a groupie. On a trip to Philadelphia to hear David Carpenter play the Walton viola concerto with the Philharmonic there I also met the young musicians’ charming mother.
A couple of subsequent pleasant experiences kept them in my mind; and my ears naturally pricked up when I heard that the three siblings, along with a group of other beautiful young people, were forming a chamber orchestra called Salomé, with David Aaron Carpenter as artistic director. Naturally I showed up for opening night at Carnegie Hall.
When I got to the Weill Recital Room and examined the playbill, I noted with some interest that the program was divided more or less evenly between W. A. Mozart and Joseph Martin Kraus. I should amend the narrative to say that I noticed this fact with interest and some alarm. “Who,” I found myself blurting out to my neighbor, “Who is Kraus”? My neighbor was an Asian-American woman of striking, mature beauty, and I immediately sensed that she was not particularly happy to be blurted out to by strange men. But she answered quite civilly: “Kraus is the Finnish Mozart. It says so right here.” What the musical notes actually said, when I tardily read them, was this: “Very little is known about the music of Joseph Martin Kraus, a composer referred to as the ‘Swedish Mozart’ as he lived almost the exact same dates as his contemporary.
Ordinarily I don’t like this mode (“the gorgonzola of wines,” “the Ghengis Kahn of Shakespeare Scholars”) of comparison, because one is never sure what is actually meant. And it can be worse. Recently someone assured me with a straight face that “the Alfa Romeo is the Rolls Royce of cars”. If you insist on using such comparisons, they should be reversible, and they rarely are. I attended a small liberal arts college in Tennessee, Sewanee. It was a good place, but its aspirations to excellence had seduced its more enthusiastic admirers to an uncautious bumper-sticker: “Sewanee: the Harvard of the South.” Then, over the years, I began to have commerce with people at or associated with Harvard University. Great was my disappointment to discover that not a single one of them thought of that institution as “the Sewanee of the North”. Even the movie Amadeus, which did everything in its power to turn Mozart into a twit, stopped short of turning him into “the Austrian Joseph Martin Kraus”.
Nonetheless, as interpreted through the viola of David Carpenter, Kraus really is a Scandinavian Mozart. (Actually, he was a German, but let it pass.) And he is unlikely to remain so obscure in the future. Somehow the Salomé came up with two very arresting pieces (a concerto for viola, cello, and orchestra and another simply for viola and orchestra) that so far as anyone knows had never before been played. So not merely was I privileged to be present at the début of an exciting new musical ensemble, I was hearing the world premiere performances of two major works by Joseph Martin Kraus, aka the Swedish Mozart!
Saint Augustine found the emotional experience of listening to music so intense and passionate as to be morally hazardous. I vaguely understand his concern. The experience of the listener is probably always an unstable compound wrought of the objective laws of physics and private, subjective associations. For such private and subjective reasons the viola solo, especially in its higher ranges, had for me come to be plangent, echoing with loss and regret. Salomé and Kraus between them may have rescued me.
One most encouraging feature of the evening was the age and enthusiasm of the audience. It was mainly composed of young people. I suppose many of them were personal friends of the players, come out to lend support and encouragement for such a worthy initiative. But the audience also clearly responded to a kind of “mission statement” on the group’s website: “New York City compels young adults to be at once adaptable, optimistic, multi-faceted and resourceful. At Salomé, we feel that the very survival and evolution of classical music within such a fast-paced, cosmopolitan environment requires a dynamic balance of novelty, tradition, and hard work.” The evening’s final (pre-encore) piece was “Primavera Porteño” by Astor Piazzolla, the Monarch of Tango. It was brilliant even without—dare I say especially without—the accordion! Sort of like this— only better yet.