Oblivious to the 9th

I have just emerged from the performance of Beethoven’s 9th by the OBC, the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, which programmed this week’s event to include a bold staging design in the hands of a company with a strange name, one I’d heard in glowing reports from other shows: the Agrupación Señor Serrano.

They probably are great at doing other things, but I found this 9th horrendous, to put it frankly. The orchestra fulfilled its role. The choir (the splendid Orfeó Català) was magnificent. Perhaps some of the soloists could have been better. But it is impossible to view a production of this kind as anything but a whole, and there was no way to make sense of that whole.

You know I don’t like to speak ill of what I haven’t liked, so in such cases I usually keep my mouth shut and let it go (yes, well, there are also times when I don’t respond because I haven’t got time, so don’t go thinking that if I haven’t written about a concert or a CD you’ve given me that it must be because I don’t like it!). In this case, though, I think voicing some thoughts is warranted.

The principal idea, which the project had already announced in writing, was not bad: read this very “European” work as a reflection on Europe. The idea of a garden as a metaphor for the common European project, collectively watered and tended (1st movement); the struggles and clouds that darken it (2nd movement); the nostalgia and consideration of the many things we’ve botched (3rd movement); and a road full of hope towards the future, one built on affection, caring, and hugs (4th movement). Fantastic up to this point.

But hang on: in this all you actually see is plenty of goodwill. The reality, minute by minute, bar after bar, is that there was no relation with the music’s unravelling. No dramatic crescendo (precisely in this work!), no relation between what we hear and what we see (an old and common problem in many operatic staging ideas too). Spectacular—in its absurdity— was the entrance of the theme of the fourth movement, following the recitative: an entrance that went completely unnoticed, lacking even a brushstroke in the staging direction. But this was the tip of the iceberg. In neither the entrance of the “Turkish” variation or the a cappella variation was there any attempt at all to capitalise on these moments by having them coincide with something. Huh?! As if there, in the music, nothing significant happens!

Then there’s the ideological drift. Europe is going bad because we have “let the weeds grow” and haven’t known how to put up the right “fences”. But exactly this, mind (and take note: as if weeds growing in a garden can be avoided by fencing; little do I know about gardening but I think I grasp this much)! Yep, boldly essentialist and ethnicist, straight up. So, there it is, something that can even be seen as a revealing metaphor of the kind of Europe that some really desire: a fenced-off garden, managed from above, and in which we are the plants at the mercy of our lords and masters.

And not one nod to the internal problems, to the hierarchies between states, to what happened in Greece, to the inability to manage Mediterranean conflicts. Not one wink! A few well-known faces (Merkel, Lagarde, y other local figures), all in a directionless succession in which you could find Napoleon, Hitler, Casals, Freud, or Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple. One brief flash, indeed, of Putin, and in another a keyboard with Cyrillic letters. ¿What’s this about? Are we to blame Europe’s problems, then, on the Russians? Well I never would have guessed!

And so, the biggest booing I have ever heard at Barcelona’s L’Auditori. I imagine that what may have most upset many spectators will have been all the explicit phallic images and the salaciousness of the couple scenes in the final minutes. This struck me as nothing more than gratuitous. But for one reason or another, I know this entire spectacle, in all its parts, just did not make sense. I prefer not to know how much public money was spent on it.

The difficulty is that, given its fatuity, the only sensible response was to boo it, which is what many of us did (though clearly wanting to distinguish the music from the staging, because the former was worthy in all ways), and this booing lumps you in with those who would have joined in the catcalls out of distaste for anything that doesn’t conform to the “usual”. But honestly, this is NOT the reason here. And it makes me doubly uneasy because the one time money is invested in something different, programming such a horror show instead of something truly valid and sound makes it more difficult next time the chance arises to be daring.

What a great shame! Truly. And a magnificent reminder that we have to be very, very dexterous when we try something different. People who know me also know how open I am to innovation, and in recent times I actively engage in this as a creative artist. But not anything goes, because there are many different ways to get across ideas within music, especially when words and staging can be used. Yet so often it is banality that rules, and this makes life so much more difficult for those of us who have things to say that do not fit in traditional channels.