Busy cultural weekend for me.
Saturday afternoon I attended a performance at the Vineyard Theatre of “The Landing,” a new musical by Greg Pierce (book and lyrics) and John Kander (music). This is Kander’s first full-length show with a new collaborator since the passing of his former writing partner, Fred Ebb. It is a modest three-part show with a four-member cast, on this occasion Julia Murney, David Hyde Pierce (uncle of Kander’s collaborator), Frankie Seratch (‘the kid’), and Paul Anthony Stewart. Each of the three revolves around a 12-year-old boy, a precocious math nerd in the first piece (“Andra”), a nephew spending the summer with the weird relatives in the second (“The Brick”), and a child adopted by a gay male couple in the third (“The Landing”). At first I didn’t think the shows had much to do with each other, but on reflection I guess seeing the world through this 12-year-old’s perspective is interesting. Is Kander “written out”? The music struck me as serviceable but not memorable, as I didn’t think any of the songs could have much of a life outside the framework of this show. The energetic cast did a great job of putting over the material, well directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. It was an entertaining few hours, but nothing really deep.
Saturday evening I attended the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts program at Washington Irving High School. Garrick Ohlsson provided an exciting piano recital, with programmed music by Brahms, Liszt, Debussy and Chopin, and two encores by Scriabin. Hearing Ohlsson always makes me nostalgic, because he played the first piano recital I attended as an undergrad at Cornell in 1970. (He had recently won the Warsaw Chopin Competition and was making his first big splash in the US music scene.) He remains an exciting performer more than 40 years later, and I found much to enjoy Saturday night. His Liszt was phenomenal, sweeping, with wide dynamic range, but always under control. The Debussy showed his wide array of tonal colors. But some of the best playing, as usual, came with the encores, a “Poem” and an “Etude”. Ohlsson is the thinking person’s virtuoso, and live up to that reputation on Saturday.
Finally, Sunday afternoon I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Declassified program, devoted to Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony, known as the “Reformation Symphony” because the event that inspired its composition (300th anniversary of the Augsberg Confession) and the dominant role given to Martin Luther’s hymn, a Mighty Fortress is our God, in the last movement. Leon Botstein’s lecture went on much too long — he has little sense of time when he is doing these, the one weakest element in this series — but included some interesting stuff, particularly the focus on material from the original draft of the symphony that the composer edited out. (This was an early work of the composer’s 19th-20th year that was not published until after his death, and had only one or two performances in his lifetime.) Botstein thought two of the excisions were unfortunate, so reinserted them for the orchestra’s performance of the complete work. I disagree with Botstein; I think Mendelssohn was correct to see that the two excised portions were out of character for the work and delayed its progression, and thus were correctly removed. Assuming Mendelssohn, unlike Bruckner, did not make these cuts under pressure from youngsters who knew no better, I don’t think we should question is final judgment. That aside, the performance of the symphony was thrilling, despite some less than immaculate ensemble from the strings. The winds covered themselves with glory. This piece deserves to be performed more frequently. The last time I heard a live performance, to my best recollection, was Michael Tilson Thomas with the Boston Symphony when I was a student in the mid 1970s! Indeed, that may be the only live performance I’ve ever heard. Let’s hear more of it!