Last night I attended the Mostly Mozart concert at Lincoln Center featuring guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and violin soloist Joshua Bell. The program of core repertory standards was J.S. Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 4, Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. I anticipated a relaxed, comfortable evening of old favorites. Boy, was I mistaken.
Nothing is relaxed with Pablo Heras-Casado on the podium. I had been present a year ago for one of his debut concerts at Mostly Mozart, and was very impressed at that time with his performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in particular, but he had slipped out of my memory as there were no reminders in the interim, no new recordings or reviews to read, etc. It seems that he had a lot of debut experiences over the past year, but he has not yet become a presence in New York or on the recording scene. That will surely come, because this is one terrific conductor.
So this was not a relaxed, comfortable evening of old standards, because nothing is an old standard for Heras-Casado. He finds new meaning in anything he touches. I have never heard a performance of Bruch or Mozart that sounded quite so energized, individualized, arousing, attention-getting. He favors faster tempi than normal much of the time, but only once did I feel that a movement was too fast for its own good: The Overture to the Bach suite, where the fleet approach seemed to me to underplay the majesty of the opening, and then the fugue passed by too quickly for my taste. But the remaining dances in the suite were all wonderfully characterized, and the menuet had an unhurried elegance that fit the overall concept.
But to the Bruch…. I've heard Itzhak Perlman play this with the Philharmonic a few times over the years, and each time my impression was that it was a simplistic, overly-sentimental bit of fluff, almost provoking me to laugh out loud at its obvious point-making and repetitiousness. I had a very different impression last night. Here were two musicians who obviously strongly believe in the piece and did the best to bring out its dramatic strengths, with great success. The orchestral passages in the first movement were packed with drama, evoked through extremes in dynamic range and emphatic rhythms. Heras-Casado conducts without a baton and seems to shape the music most expressively and, at times, explosively, with fists as well as open hand. Given the short rehearsal time for these programs (the orchestra is preparing two complete programs each week during the festival), he must be a very skillful conductor to be able to get such an unusually detailed performance from the orchestra. And Joshua Bell played the solo with real guts – this was what struck me the most, the assertiveness of his performance, so contrary to the relatively placid approach I recall from Perlman. Nice big tone, wonderful attention to detail, and a feeling of strong advocacy for the piece….
This set me up to expect a very unusual Mozart 40th, and I wasn't disappointed. This was Mozart on steroids, milked for all the drama the music contains, extremes of dynamics, careful pointing of phrases, lots of energy at all times. The Andante seemed very fast-paced, but worked as an effective musical statement and, at the chosen tempo, did not wear out its welcome as it sometimes does when conductors take the repeats. The finale went like the wind – I'm sure that Mozart, who was known to favor fast tempi, would have been ecstatic.
As is all too often the case, the biographical note on Heras-Casado was uninformative. One couldn't tell from this note where he was from (with his name, he could be from just about anywhere), what instrument or instruments he played, where he is based, where he received his musical education, who his mentors were, how old he is, etc. Some on-line exploration led me to his own website, which is also less than ideal in this respect. The bio in the program book was pretty much a cut-and-paste from the bio on his website, which sounds like it was written by a publicist with amnesia. It's only concerned with his career since he started making professional appearances. From reading some of the review clips on the site, I discern that he is from Spain and that his career was centered on Western Europe until the past few years, when he has begun to receive prestigious debut opportunities in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, from his looks and the recency of his career highlights, I would speculate he is still in his 20s. [A friend who read this post and did further research informs me that he was born in 1977 in Granada, so he is older than he looks!] The NY Philharmonic should snatch him up for guest appearances. Recording companies should be interested in him. (I went online and ordered the only thing I could find, a trombone virtuoso's recording on which Heras-Casado conducts the concerto by Nino Rota but does not participate in the other works on the disc, some of which are chamber music.) It would be exciting to hear what he can do with a big symphony orchestra at his command.
And, Joshua Bell, it's time to bring your current thoughts on the Bruch concerto into the recording studio. This was a memorable performance that deserves to be preserved. Preferably with this conductor!