Orchestral Weekend: NYP/Nelsons and ASO/Botstein

Two concerts attended this weekend:  On Saturday night, the New York Philharmonic with guest conductor Andris Nelsons and violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff.  On Sunday afternoon, the American Symphony Orchestra with conductor Leon Bostein.  My experience was a combination of the memorable and the forgettable.

First, the memorable.  For the second half of the NY Philharmonic concert, Nelsons led the orchestra in Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.  I thought this was probably the best performance that I’ve ever heard of this piece.  My acquaintance with the Concerto for Orchestra dates back to my early years as a record collector in the 1960s, when I purchased the Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording.  I’ve since heard many recordings and several live performances.  The first live performance I heard was by the New York Philharmonic, in a Parks Concerto conducted by the late Thomas Schippers (that really dates me, I guess).  I can’t specifically recall all the others, but I’ve heard several.  Never, however, have I been so overwhelmed as I was by this Saturday night’s performance.  Nelsons is not a restrained interpreter.  He intervenes to shape the music, bend the tempi, play with balances… and he is, like Leonard Bernstein was, a “jumper.”  That is, he tends to bounce around on the podium, giving the orchestra visual cues to animate the music, occasionally passing the baton off to his left hand while shaping the music with his right.  The orchestra responded with overwhelming absorption to his direction, producing a very exciting and involving performance.  The Concerto for Orchestra provides chances for every solo player and section to show off, and they all performed magnificantly.  For me, the sound of an orchestra is heavily defined by the principal oboe, and Liang Wang was the hero of the evening for me, in this as well as both pieces in the first half.

But the first half did not strike me nearly as strongly.  They opened with Antonin Dvorak’s symphonic poem, “The Noon Witch,” last performed by the orchestra in 2005 when Alan Gilbert appeared as a guest conductor.  The Dvorak tone poems aren’t played with any frequency by American orchestras, so its reappearance less than ten years later is itself worth comment, but the piece itself is not quite so distinctive as the last few symphonies.  I thought the orchestra played well, but I was not overwhelmed the way I was for the Bartok.  Tetzlaff in the Brahms Concerto was also a bit of a letdown, despite Nelsons’ hard work in keeping the piece moving.  I found the solo playing a bit hard-edged, lacking the romantic sweep that this concerto naturally invites.  Wang’s big oboe solo in the second movement was gorgeous, but the movement itself seemed to wander a bit.  Tetzlaff’s vehement attacks were most appropriate in the gypsy-toned finale.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s concerts always have a theme.  This time the title was “Truth or Truffles” and presented works by two composers whose lives were affected by the Nazi takeover of Germany. 

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who detested the Nazis but found himself constrained from leaving the country, endured a sort of internal exile, his music unplayed, for the duration of that regime, emerging at war’s end as one of the few significant composers untainted by Nazi associations, and he continued composing until his death in 1963.  He did not live to complete Gesangsszene, a piece for baritone and orchestra setting words from the poem “Sodom and Gomorrah” by Jean Giraudoux, conveying a rather bleak view of the future of humanity.  At the first performance, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau spoke the final lines that the composer had not lived to set, and the result was seen as dramatically apt.  Sunday’s soloist, Lester Lynch, did the same.  For me, that was actually the high point of the performance.  The piece lasts nearly half an hour, and perhaps the text dictates the mood, but I found it dour, off-putting, excessively noisy at times, and lacking thematic coherence or tunefulness.

Leon Botstein’s program note refers to “Strauss’ collaboration with the Nazi regime” in passing, which I find perhaps too simplistic a statement.  Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish, and he was commandeered by the regime to be the figurehead of a state cultural agency, under the implicit threat of harm to his family if he did not cooperate.  He was not a Nazi propagandist or supporter, but he did pinch-hit as conductor at the Bayreuth Festival when Toscanini boycotted and thus lent his prestige as a senior conductor of world repute to the hated regime.  In any event, the ASO presented a work from the 1920s, what Botstein described as “Strauss’ perhaps least-respected score,” the ballet Schlagobers, which Botstein suggested might be a welcome replacement for the overly-repeated Nutcracker Ballet at Christmastime.  I beg to differ.  Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is a work of compositional genius, with gorgeous melodies, great (and inventive) orchestration, and such innate musical interest that one can play the ballet as a concert piece without dancing and retain the active interest of the audience.  One could hardly say as much for the Strauss, which struck me as banal, lacking in memorable themes, and overly long.  When a major composition by a composer who has produced many works that have entered the standard orchestral repertory is widely-ignored, there is usually good reason.  Based on yesterday’s performance, I can’t imagine why an orchestra would devote 90 minutes on a concert program to this piece when they could present one of Strauss’ indubitably great pieces – Heldenleben, for example – instead.

That said, of course, there is a logic to presenting both of these pieces.  The ASO specializes in presenting rarely-heard works, and focuses attention on major works of little-known composers and neglected works of major composers.  This concert featured one of each.  They were probably each worth a performance, although putting both on one program was a bit of a strain for the listener, and this concert didn’t draw a big crowd.  Hartmann has never really caught on in America, and Schlagobers is obscure enough that it would not be a draw on any concert program.  This is the drawback of ASO’s programming, which was overcome at their prior concert by including the Brahms 4th Symphony on a program with the unknown Herzogenberg and the little-played Dvorak Symphony No. 4 (“new number,” not the “old” No. 4 that is now known as No. 8 and frequently played).  Perhaps that is a strategy worth emphasizing a bit more, if drawing more listeners is a goal.

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