Pipe Dream, American Mavericks, and NOT a Midsummer Night’s Dream

It's been a very busy few days and I'm just getting around to noting several cultural events attended recently.

On Wednesday night, I was in Carnegie Hall for the second of a series of concerts by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with the collective title of "American Mavericks."  Luckily, the one I ended up attending was the one with the piece I most wanted to hear: Henry Brant's orchestral version of Charles Ives's Piano Sonata No. 2, the "Concord Sonata."  Any purists who might object to the idea of an orchestrated version of a piano sonata would have to take account of the peculiar nature of this work.  Although Ives self-published a version of the sonata in 1920, and a revised version in 1947, he actually never really finished the piece, making little changes, cuts, additions, as it continued to evolve in his mind.  Indeed, the second movement, "Hawthorne," sounds at times like a study for the eventual second movement of his 4th Symphony – a piece that was left in manuscript and only revised into a performable version after his death for the world premiere in Carnegie Hall by Leopold Stokowski (with two assistant conductors) and the American Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s.

Brant heard an orchestral piece struggling to break out of the Concord Sonata, and it is easy to hear that, since the piano's resources are incredibly stretched and strained to contain Ives's imaginative sonic landscape.  Brant's orchestration is only one possible one.  It does most of the time have an Ivesian sound, to judge by the 4th Symphony to which it is close kin.  I recently acquired the recording that MTT and the SFSO made based on a live performance in their home hall, but I wanted to hear this live, as a recording can't really begin to contain the sonic universe of Charles Ives.  It was a great performance Wednesday night, full of color, humor and passion, and I'm glad I was there.

The first half of the concert consisted of being shouted at (Carl Ruggles' "Sun-treader") and being whispered at (Morton Feldman's "Piano and Orchestra" with Emmanuel Ax at the piano in front of the orchestra).  There are interesting sounds in both pieces, but neither cohere for me as overwhelmingly rewarding musical experiences.  Certainly MTT and the orchestra put forth a fantastic effort to project these pieces, but I remain unconvinced by either of them.

On Saturday afternoon, I attended NY City Center Encores! production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Pipe Dream," possibly the least successful Broadway musical produced by this team(from 1955).  Even thought it was not a monster hit like Carousel or Oklahoma, it did run 246 performances, a respectable amount, but didn't earn back it's investment and has not been revived on Broadway.  This semi-staged performance was superb – a great cast, the terrific Encores! orchestra expanded to a respectable string section — indeed, chamber orchestra proportions to make the most of Bennett's orchestrations — and great work on the podium.  The thin and ridiculous plotting helps to explain why this one has pretty much disappeared apart from the original cast album.  Listening to it is like constantly thinking that one is listening to something else, because as music and lyrics it fits comfortably within the overall trajectory of shows by this team.  Every song sounds like Richard Rodgers, every lyric sounds like Oscar Hammerstein, with all the strengths and limitations going with that.  The good news is that this brief revival will not be totally lost to history, as the R&H production office decided based on hearing rehearsals that this was worth preserving, and there will be a recording based on the performances.  Anybody who loves R&H should support the project by getting the recording when it is issued.

Last night, I was at the New York Philharmonic for a concert led by guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi.  He began with Alfred Schnittke's (K)ein Sommernachstraum, a piece commissioned by the Salzburg Festival that turned into a brief sort-of-tribute to Mozart.  A Mozartian minuet is subjected to variation and distortion over the course of about 9 minutes.  It's fun to hear, albeit quite repetitious to the extent of being tiresome towards the end.  The NYP played with their accustomed finesse.

Then Frank Peter Zimmermann, the fine German violinist, came on stage for a fiery performance of Antonin Dvorak's Violin Concerto.  I love this piece, especially in the recordings by Nathan Milstein and Josef Suk, but I can't recall having actually heard a live performance in more than three decades of NY concert-going.  (I know it's been played before – after all, the NYP played it in 1894, and the program book says they last played it in July 2011 at the Vail Music Festival, but I can't recall hearing it.)  It's sort of on the fringes of the repertory for several reasons: the themes in the first two movements aren't quite as memorable as Dvorak's best, the second movement goes on too long rehashing the same material, and the orchestration – despite Joseph Joachim's determined efforts to get Dvorak to lighten it up – is still too heavy at times in competition with the soloist.  But the finale is rip-roaring fun, and Zimmermann certainly did it justice.

Finally, after intermission we had Peter Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the "Pathetique," another piece that doesn't get played as much as it used to.  I've heard a few performances, but not as many as one would expect of what is really a central repertory piece.   (It was last played by the NYP on tour in China in 2008, four years ago – a bit surprising when you consider that the Brahms symphonies get played much more frequently by this orchestra.)  I thought Dohnanyi and the orchestra did a superb job with this.  The third movement march, in particular, seemed more symphonic and dramatic than usual, and with a commanding gesture, Dohnanyi managed to restrain the audience from interrupting the transition to the final adagio with applause.  (I guess he didn't try on Thursday night, since the Times review noted applause at that point.)  It is absolutely draining to listen to a strong performance of this piece, and I felt drained afterwards and thankful for having been there. 

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