The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

In Retrospect: The DSO and their Symphonism, Pt. 1

Updated: Feb 14

Welcome to the inaugural post of In Retrospect, an opportunity to go head-first into the sonic world of music and discover what makes it goes 'boom' and what that 'boom' means. Each post will correlate to a different performance that was simply too marvelous to not allocate more time towards, and thus The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Feb.12th Digital Concert was the perfect beginning! Their concert program was Magnus Lindberg’s three-movement, 'Chamber Symphony' Souvenir which was then followed by Prokofiev's Op.25 First Symphony, a fitting pair which would make even B. Asafiev proud.


Interesting fact: Prokofiev's Op.25 was dedicated to none other than the famed Soviet Musicologist Boris Asafiev himself who, with just cause, considered Prokofiev a true, pre-revolutionary Russian composer!


[This is Pt.1 of a two-part post, be sure to check the next post for Pt.2]


[For $12 dollars, you can follow along and hear the concert by clicking here]

Personifying ‘life in sounding,’ as described by B. Asafiev, is a process by which the psycho-spiritual conduit, the composer, attempts to channel their experientially-conditioned psychologisms into the intonational world of decomposing sound, and as Asafiev himself has notated, their attempts are not always successful, ‘Not all symphonies are symphonic.’ Composers like Dargomyzhsky, the musician-playwright’ and yet ‘anti-musician,’ Glazunov, the polemical shadow of Rimsky-Korsakov who never managed to escape the inertial entrapment of ‘separate moments,’ and Borodin, Asafiev’s ignored member of the Balakirev circle due to his flat-out, Western mimetic failings, all exemplified the less-effective side of what Asafiev had understood as ‘symphonism,’ namely the manifested ‘experience of being human’ through an intonational ‘stream of consciousness,’ ushering in the ‘evolution of the human eye.’ On the complete other side of the life/soul spectrum are composers like Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, arbiters of a divine truth whose chosen medium was the sonic arts, whose very being fully epitomized the role of an authentic ‘symphonist,’ the creator of living [symphonic] music, described by Asafiev as, “when the creative process contains a volitional impulse...a pure becoming beyond time and space.” Last night, amidst the hecticness of political impeachments, [as of yet] unsolved health crises, and American socio-political discontentments of various natures, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, under the versatile direction of Finnish born John Storgårds, performed Magnus Lindberg’s ‘Souvenir’ and Prokofiev’s Op.25 ‘Classical Symphony.’ These two palpably thrilling works, despite the first being unclassified, unarguably deserve the title of ‘symphonic,’ i.e., a pervasive dynamism unrelenting in its natural evolution, a consistent marriage to horizontalist linearity, a replenishing inceptionalism infusing every moment with connective meaning and a reason to occur, but most importantly, in Asafiev’s own words, ‘a tension that pulls onward’ stopping only when the last note is played and its reverberations linger in the pervading atmosphere.


[PC: © Saara Vuorjoki, Fimic]

The first piece by Lindberg, an evocative testament to the power of chamber voracity and small-ensemble versatility, ventures through three distinct vignettes which I considered to highlight a Dantean circumambulation of the migrating consciousness when presented with the ills of their former manifestation and offered the choice to renounce fully or be consumed by previous faults completed while alive. Considered by one as rather overblown,’ a boorish opinion obviously garnished through an ossified ear used to see [by no means hear] Salierian superficiality and the occasional Bach cantata, other, more cogent observers laid witness to the mystifying grandeur, The New York Times Anthony Tommasini considering its harmonic language unable to be formally categorized, instead stating, ‘shimmering, diaphanous and pungent.’


The first vignette begins with a foreboding nature, conjuring into organized cacophony the intonational rendition of Campbell’s remarkable study on the hero’s journey, ‘The Hero with 1,000 Faces,’ a comparison only observable when the work is heard as a collective unit. Punctuated with a tympanic cry, the first movement of the developing self evolves into coolheaded notes of Gershwin rhapsodicism before migrating into undulating bouts of Debussyian Impressionism, by this meaning the presence of a certain engimaticism preventing the listener from sensing what exactly the sonic terrain currently is in its fullness and will ultimately become in the future. Dipping into a breadth of composorial traits, i.e., Scriabin’s synthestetic ‘genesis’, Ravel’s instrumental elucidations, Holstian interstellar gradations, and even Schubertian turmoil, Gretchen am Spinnrade making a quick appearance, within this first movement Lindberg exemplifies what it means to be ‘in-tune’ with the cosmos, something greater, the unknown Other.


The second movement and its ethereal nebulousness serves as a hallucinogenic ode to the days of Pan and the Muses of Music, to the seductively coercive call of beauty akin to Strauss’s Salome who wistfully called for the head of John the Baptist, to the fantastically vengeful yet equally compassionate creations of this world, seen at-home in the garden of L’Enfant’s dreams, all echoing with the aid of orchestral washes attributable only to durable love of Debussy’s Daphnis and Chloe. However, the world of capricious fancies and illusory Birds of Paradise give way, through a downward, pianistic flourish acting as the mighty waterfall to which our imaginative raft glides upon, to the burgeoning gravitas of a new world, one that Strauss’s Zarathustra had envisioned and which was given a face in the iconic film 2001: Space Odyssey. This second movement is similar to the evolutionary soundtrack, not only because of its magnificent scoring and large-sweeping gesturalism, but because of the narrative it invokes, the coming of age and the drawing of a new era of man.

[PC: Arnold Böcklin: Die Toteninsel ]

However, the third movement, described by one as ‘almost perfunctory,’ an appraisal I strongly condemn as it’s rather sectional and ignorant of the greater whole, reinstates movement one’s ominous attitude although circumventing a Rachmaninovian ‘Isle of the Dead’ demeanour and orienting instead within and among a swirling atmosphere with an external facade of impermeability but an internal stability, a conscious heart which knows exactly where to proceed and how to get there. But from the gaseousness emerges heroic deliverance, and amidst the woodwind’s tenuous ebb-and-flow accompanied by the pitched-percussion’s open-intervallic oscillations, the versatile aptitude and programmatic acumen of Lindberg’s heroism becomes greatly apparent through rapidly evolving hued landscapes, each housing a connective through-line which causes that intrinsic ‘volitional impulse’ to remain intimately attached, Asafiev calling this noticeable trait ‘centrifugal run-off,’ a necessary attribute for truly symphonic music. As the harmonicity and textural dynamicism slowly percolates upwards, led by a procession of celestial winds ushering in the future, followed in-tail with the remaining forces, the shimmering mirage becomes embodied and finally the ever-hopeful hero, flawed humanity at large, finally bequeaths itself to that palpable vision made flesh. Life is only one-way, thus so we shall live on.

This concludes Pt.1 of The DSO edition of the new series called, In Retrospect, short expositions which seek to really hear the ‘music’ around us through understanding concert repertoire from a non-traditional, analytical process. By ‘hearing’ through a sensorial, narrative-based orientation, one comes closer to visualizing the pre-form and the form as not posited realities, but infinitely becoming soundscapes with no pre-set architectonic design as its goal, but simple to be with an ‘Ought’ or a ‘should.’ Welcome to life in sound.


[This is Pt.1 of a two-part post, be sure to check the next post for Pt.2]

[PC: All belong to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra]