For a variety of reasons, raw spontaneity is less common at symphonic performances nowadays than in the nineteenth century and before. In the days when they were also composers, performers were of course more prone to improvise. In the days before recordings and airplanes, there was no centripetal norm for interpretation.
PostClassical Ensemble’s “Schubert Uncorked” in DC last weekend was the least predictable concert I have ever produced. At the close of the dress rehearsal the same afternoon, we had little real idea how the evening concert would fare.
The main event was a world premiere: the Arpeggione Concerto for bass trombone and strings, this being a reimagining of Schubert’s Sonata for arpeggione (a sort of six-string cello) and piano by the inimitable bass trombonist David Taylor. You can hear Taylor’s Schubert – his versions of the song “Der Doppelganger” and of the finale of the Arpeggione with piano — on the Ensemble’s website. But these performances supply an imperfect impression of what happened when David Taylor played Schubert’s sonata with an ensemble of 22 intrepid strings.
I first heard David Taylor play the Arpeggione Sonata in my living room, accompanying him at the piano. He had just come to the piece and was sticking to Schubert. In subsequent months, he took wayward possession of this music with a will. Tempos, dynamics, registers careened toward expressive extremes. The rehearsals with orchestra, courageously led by Angel Gil-Ordonez, were not reassuring. Following a wayward trombonist at the piano is a lot simpler than chasing him with an ensemble in tow.
Meanwhile, Taylor inflicted his insidious sonic imagination on Schubert’s innocent keyboard textures. For the opening of the slow movement, he had the violins play in harmonics in imitation of a glass harmonica, the better to set off the low blasts of his instrument.
The sheer virtuosity of Taylor’s command of Schubert acrobatic showpiece was never in doubt – he can play it, and beautifully. But Taylor’s virtuosity is divinely wed to an idiosyncratic musical personality wholly his own. A lot of head-shaking and head-scratching followed that dress rehearsal.
The program began with a set of Schubert dances for strings. The Arpeggione Concerto came next, then – sans intermission – the sublime Adagio from Bruckner’s String Quintet (with string orchestra), followed by two Schubert songs with bass trombone and strings: “Die Stadt” and – Taylor’s specialty – “Der Doppelganger.”
About a minute into the concerto, it was suddenly obvious that all would be OK. The performance was a bewildering success. The program as a whole moved clairvoyantly from light – the dances and concerto – to dark: the solemnity of Bruckner (magnificently rendered; Gil-Ordonez studied for years with Sergiu Celibidache in Munich); the anguish of the two late Schubert songs.
None of us had anticipated the shock of “Doppelganger” in this context – it was Taylor’s first opportunity to open up and blast us full force. In the audience, bodies bobbed as if electrocuted. Watching the response of the musicians onstage was a rare pleasure: I have never seen members of an orchestra react as vividly, or visibly, to a soloist’s entrance as on this occasion. We invited the audience to stay for a post-concert discussion; the vast majority did, for fully half an hour.
The days of the performance specialist are numbered. More and more, important instrumentalists will again – as in the days of Liszt and Paganini – be spontaneous creators of their own music.