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March Musical Diary, Part II – Ending Spring Break with a Bang!!

Posted on: March 18th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

New York Law School’s Spring Break period this year was March 8-16. I ended it with a real bang, attending concerts on five consecutive days (overlapping the beginning of classes): Thursday, March 13 – Vienna Philharmonic led by Andris Nelsons at Carnegie Hall; Friday, March 21 – Les Delices, Five Boroughs Music Festival, at the King Manor Museum in Jamaica, Queens; Saturday, March 14; Saturday, March 15 – New York Philharmonic led by Alan Gilbert at Lincoln Center; Sunday, March 16 – Dover String Quartet and Leon Fleisher presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Town Hall, Manhattan (matinee); Sunday, March 16 – Vienna Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta at Carnegie Hall; Monday, March 17 – Charpentier operas – La Descente d’Orphee aus Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs, presented by Boston Early Music Festival at the Morgan Library Auditorium. Whew!

Coming up for air after all that:

My impressions of the Vienna Philharmonic based on these two concerts were a bit mixed. On the one hand, they are clearly a major orchestra that plays with intense concentration and dedication, and brings a special tradition to music having Viennese connections. They had a different sound under the two different conductors, which means that they are a responsive orchestra that is not limited in its ability to adapt to the requirements of the music and the conductor. That said, I was not overwhelmed by the Haydn/Brahms program with Nelsons, although there were many good parts. In the Haydn symphony, I felt they handled the “joke” in the finale (the false ending) very well, but the symphony as a whole seemed to me more proficient than inspired. The Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn were excellent. The 3rd Symphony is notoriously the most difficult of the four to bring off in concert, and one always wonders why a conductor would end a concert program with this piece, given its quiet conclusion. I prefer a faster pace than they took in the first movement, and fewer tempo adjustments. After that first movement, I thought things went very well. I do have some problems adjusting to the Vienna orchestra’s sound in these pieces, especially the sound cultivated by their principal oboe players, which is more reedy and piercing than the sound cultivated by American oboe players. I was more favorably impressed by the sound of the orchestra under Mehta at the second concert I attended, a three and a half hour marathon comprising mainly short pieces intended to show off the orchestra’s style in lighter music for the most part. (The only departures from that were the Webern 6 Pieces and the Mozart Ave Verum Corpus, and perhaps the Korngold Violin Concerto, although this piece would not be out of place on a pops program.) Mehta is terrific in this repertory, and the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the waltzes and gallops of 19th century Viennese composers was well communicated. A foreshadowing of this was the encores on Thursday night, a Strauss waltz, and there was more Strauss on Sunday. Gil Shaham was the excellent soloist in the Korngold Concerto, and Diana Damrau, in town for appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, joined in the spirit of the night, participating in a vocal encores as well as doing some guest conducting in the last encore, in addition to singing her programmed arias. New York Vocal Artists also contributed with appropriate style.

Coming between my two Vienna PO nights was the New York Philharmonic, continuing their Nielsen project (one concert a year over several years which results in concert recordings of all the symphonies and concerti released on the Da Capo label) with the 1st and 4th Symphonies and the Helios Overture. They had originally announced the Clarinet Concerto for this concert as well, but saner heads prevailed. That would have been too long. As it is, this was a substantial program. I thought the Overture and the 4th Symphony were superbly rendered, the 1st Symphony perhaps a shade less good, although this may be due as much to the music — a more tentative foray into symphonic form — as the orchestra’s lack of familiarity with it. The program said these were first NYP performances for the overture and 1st Symphony, which is actually amazing considering when they were written. The performance of the 4th really gripped me from the start and held me throughout. And it struck me that the NYP and the VPO are very different orchestras. NYP plays with a degree of technical finesse and brilliance that the VPO does not seem to aspire to, being more concerned with expressivity and warmth. Each is valid in its own way, although I have come to rely on the precision and technical brilliance of the NYP and maybe that’s one reason I was less impressed with the VPO’s Brahms 3rd.

A side benefit of Five Boroughs Music Festival is discovering interesting concert venues in the outer boroughs. The King Manor Museum is an early 19th century house set in a small park in Jamaica that was constructed to be the home of Rufus King, a New York anti-slavery politician who served in the US Senate and fought against the Missouri Compromise. His son, who also occupied this house, served as Governor of New York. The front parlor was an ideal setting for French Baroque chamber music, splendidly rendered, although at such close quarters the music sometimes seemed a bit larger than life.

Sunday afternoon’s Peoples’ Symphony Concert provided a contrast of age and experience and youthful exuberance. The Dover Quartet, looking to be a collection of 20-something virtuosi, sailed through Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet with ease. Leon Fleisher gave a rather severe rendition of Johannes Brahms’ piano transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, arranged for left hand alone. In the second half, the two came together for Korngold’s Suite for Piano and String Trio, Op. 23. Although Fleisher resumed performing two-handed music in public several years ago, having apparently conquered the physical problems that had deprived him of the use of his right hand, in this program he stuck to left-handed music. I was particularly impressed with the synergy exhibited in the Korngold piece. Fleisher clearly has great admiration and affection for the Dover players, and they for him, and it showed in this tight collaboration.

Finally, a last minute addition to my schedule: When I learned that Jesse Blumberg, a favorite baritone, was performing with Boston Early Music Festival in two Charpentier operas, I had to go! And I’m glad I did. An excellent early music instrumental ensemble anchored by star theorbo player Paul O’Dette and concertmaster Robert Mealy provided a sumptuous framework for excellent singers, most notably Aaron Sheehan as Orpheus. Jesse was a strong Pluto, king of the underworld, although I almost didn’t recognize him under the wig and beardless! There were excellent costumes by Anna Watkins, thrilling choreography by Melinda Sullivan. Would that Charpentier’s music were a bit more memorable — others have done rather better dramatically with the Orpheus tale — but it was always at least serviceable, and the choruses something more than that. The Morgan Library’s auditorium presents a rather small stage for such a production, but the acoustics and sightlines are excellent. BEMF is presenting some other things there that are worth searching out.

A Concert Diary for the First Half of March 2014 – Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Peoples’s Symphony Concerts, Houston Symphony

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

The first two weeks of March have been quite busy, and again I’ve fallen behind in posting about my concert-going experiences. So here is a quick catch-up.

I had a double-header on Saturday, March 1, attending the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Prince Igor in the afternoon, and a piano recital by Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in the evening.

The Met’s new production of Prince Igor, produced an designed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, takes a new approach to this unfinished opera by Alexander Borodin. When Borodin died, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov picked up the pieces and, with the assistance of Alexander Glazunov, put together an opera using much of Borodin’s material and some that Rimsky and Glazunov composed. The overture, for example, was reconstructed by Glazunov from memories of Borodin playing it at the piano, in the absence of any surviving manuscript. In this form the opera made its appearance around the world, but never really won full status in the standard operative repertory, although the Polovtsian Dances, extracted by Rimsky as a concert suite, achieved wide performance in symphony concerts, and the opera was heavily raided for the Broadway musical, Kismet. For this new Met production, Tcherniakov, in collaboration with conductor Gianandrea Noseda and composer Pavel Smelkov (who handled new orchestrations) went back to Borodin’s original and put together an opera that leaves behind the new material composed by Rimsky and Glazunov. We are assured in the program book that virtually all the music we were hearing was by Borodin, although he had some help in fleshing things out orchestrally. This process required dropping some scenes that had become familiar, and reordering the remainder. Tcherniakov imposed on the work a new logic and sequence of action, making it more of an interior exploration of the mind of Prince Igor, a minor noble whose attempt to vanquish the Polovtsian tribe’s invasion of Russian space was unsuccessful.

It is an interesting experiment. Borodin’s music continues to cast its spell, in whatever order it is played, and Noseda conducts a compelling performance by an illustrious Russian cast, with Ildar Abdrazakov an outstanding Igor and Oksana Dyka stunning as his long-suffering wife. As to the production itself, I register my continuing protest against taking historically based operas and resetting them in times other than those contemplated by the composer. Borodin would have expected, as a 19th century composer, that performances of his opera would be staged with sets and costumes suitable for a story taking place in 12th century Eurasia. But here we had on stage soldiers in early 20th century uniforms carrying rifles. We had officers dressed in uniforms that seemed to be from various periods from the late 19th century through Soviet-style uniforms of what might be the 1930s. We had electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We had industrial fixtures suggesting an early 20th century setting. And we had some confusion as well, with a plot summary in the program that is not entirely helpful in explaining what is flashback, what is present, what is taking place in Igor’s imagination or dreams, what is actually happening. I found the third act particularly confusing, as one unit set was apparently intended as the interior of Igor’s palace in Putivl, but some of the action seems to be taking place elsewhere. Is this in Igor’s mind? That occurs to me as an explanation, but didn’t as I was watching the scene unfold.

I think the production is a musical success, but I hope that if the Met decides to restage it in the future, they might try to clarify things a bit in the plot summary and maybe even add some explanatory material to the surtitles displayed on the seatbacks.

Despite the odd decisions about how to costume them, I thought the Met chorus (and interloping supernumeraries) were superbly deployed, and the dancers in the Act II dream sequence ballet, played to the Polovtsian Dances, were superb as well.

On to Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School for Alexandre Tharaud’s March 1 recital of music by Schumann, Schubert, Mahler and Beethoven. This was a real attempt at casting against type. Tharaud is mainly known from his recordings and prior appearances as an expert performer in the French piano repertory, with some excursions into Chopin and Scarlatti. But on this occasion he focused on completely different repertory – Austro-German romanticism – with Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” suite, Op. 15, Schubert’s 4 Impromptus, D. 899, Tharaud’s solo piano arrangement of the Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (Op. 57). It’s two weeks later as I write this and I can remember all the encores, but I recall that one was a sonata by Scarlatti. Tharaud played with the expected clarity and authority, but I felt that some of his interpretive choices were a bit off, including some overemphasis of inner voices and bass lines at the expense of stylistic coherence. The Mahler transcription didn’t work for me. Mahler thought orchestrally in his symphonies and the Adagietto in a keyboard arrangement came across to me as clunky and percussive, totally out of character. Maybe I was just tired after the long afternoon with Borodin, but I was not as enthusiastic as I expected to be. I am a huge admirer of Tharaud’s work from his recordings, but the recital let me down a bit.

It was back to the Metropolitan Opera on March 5 for the revival of The Enchanted Island, a Baroque pastiche opera assembled especially for the Met by Jeremy Sams, drawing plot elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and music drawn mainly from works of Handel with interpolated material by Vivaldi, Rameau, Campra, Leclair, Purcell, Rebel and Ferrandini. I loved this when I attended the world premiere on New Year’s Eve 2011 with William Christie conducting, but I thought the current revival fell a bit flat with Patrick Summers on the podium and slight changes in the cast. One thing that did not change was the excellent supporting part of Neptune sung by Placido Domingo, who really commands the stage. David Daniels’ voice seemed a bit submerged by the orchestra. I had particularly bought a ticket of this to see Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young countertenors, but I had forgotten how tiny the role of Ferdinand is in this production. One waits for hours, and then Costanzo pops up right towards the end, singing briefly, but beautifully costumed. Indeed, the triumph of this production is in the sets and costumes. But this time around the production didn’t hold my interest to the degree it had at the premiere. In light of the many empty seats I saw on a Wednesday night, I suspect the Met will not be in a hurry to bring this one back.

The next night, March 6, I was in Carnegie Hall for a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Oratorio Society of New York, with vocal soloists Susan Gritton, Julie Boulianne, Michael Schade and Nathan Berg, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, whose specialty is historically informed performance of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic music. In line with Norrington’s approach, the string players large eschewed vibrato, tempi veered towards extremes of slow and (more frequently fast), phrasing was a bit clipped at times, dynamics a bit exaggerated. Nothing can really sink the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest creations of one of the greatest musical geniuses, but I did not feel and lift and thrill that I had experienced when I heard John Eliot Gardner lead period forces in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall several years ago. It felt like Norrington had some emotional distance from the music — music that was very emotional on Beethoven’s part, and that his performing forces — that is, chorus and orchestra, not soloists — were a bit overmatched by the challenges this piece presents. The chorus was, in short, too large — either that, or the orchestra was too small. Well over 100 choristers were listed in the program, and it was quite a crowd assembled on the stage. This is not a full-time professional chorus, and Beethoven’s writing for the chorus in this piece is generally acknowledged to be very demanding. They gave it a good try, but they lacked the polish to carry it all off convincingly. St. Luke’s is a highly proficient group, but one cannot adequately balance such a huge chorus with a chamber orchestra in this piece and expect to make the desired effects. The string body was just too small, and sounded even smaller than usual without using vibrato to thicken the tone. They also seemed quite scrappy in the big fugal passages. Not even a near miss, in my opinion.

Now for something completely different. I was visiting in Houston, Texas, on the weekend, to spend time with my Mom and my Houston relatives (brother and sister-in-law, nephew and his growing family with two toddlers in tow, and niece). Arrangements were made by my brother for us to attend the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s March 8 program at Jesse Jones Hall. I’d never been in that hall before, to the best of my recollection, and I was very impressed. Better sight-lines than Avery Fisher, and acoustics to rival Carnegie. We were sitting in the rear orchestra, under the balcony overhang, but I felt no diminution of high pitched sounds (as one experiences in the Dress Circle at Carnegie or rear orchestra in Avery Fisher). This room fans out rather than being the severe rectangle of Avery Fisher or the traditional shape of Carnegie, and the result is sonically distinguished.

The Houston Symphony is currently “between” music directors, Hans Graf having retired and a new young man slated to begin next fall. The season includes a progression of guests, but they decided to experiment with something different for this concert, dispensing with a conductor, although concertmaster Frank Huang supervised the preparations and led from the first chair (or, in the Piazzolla, standing in the center as soloist). Apart from a handful of woodwind players and a harpsichordist in the opening Haydn Symphony No. 39, all the musicians on stage were string players. The experiment was a success; they played well together without a conductor. The Haydn is a nondescript early symphony that received a vigorous but forgettable performance. But then, with Astor Piazzolla’s 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires concerti, we were in memorable territory. The composer incorporates tango rhythms into classical forms for four brief concerti intended to suggest the various seasons in a South American city. Although most of the solo work was assigned to concertmaster Huang, there were brief solos allotted to some of the other musicians as well. The players obviously enjoyed this piece, getting into the swing of things and sporting wide grins at times reflecting their pleasure in the music. After intermission came a sumptuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. I’ve heard several performances of this in recent years, but always played by chamber orchestras, and it was a completely different and agreeable experience to hear it played by a large, well-disciplined orchestra string section. The Houston Symphony strings sounded great.

Upon returning to New York, I found myself in the midst of Carnegie Hall’s Vienna City of Dreams Festival, with my subscription ticket for the Vienna Philharmonic’s March 13 concert, led by guest conductor Andris Nelsons, who is scheduled to take over as music director of the Boston Symphony in the fall. In keeping with the Festival theme, the program was entirely made up of music associated with Vienna – a symphony by Haydn, two works by Brahms, and encore by Johann Strauss Jr. (The orchestra telegraphed the inevitability of an encore by having a harp on the stage during the second half, when the only work listed on the program did not require that instrument.) Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 incorporates a joke on the audience, which almost never fails to succeed. The last movement has a false ending followed by a pause, during which the audience applauds. The conductor waves to cut off the applause and starts things up again, leading to the real ending. It may seem obvious, but this symphony is not played with any great frequency, so audiences are always fooled, apart from a handful of those who correctly interpret the program notes or quickly register before they can applaus that the conductor has not dropped his arms. In a canny bit of linkage, the Haydn Symphony was followed by Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, thus providing a stylistic bridge to the second half’s performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. We don’t hear the Haydn Variations that much in concert, apart from the occasional all-Brahms festival, but it is a marvelous piece compromised by its length. (Modern U.S. symphony concert programs tend to eschew short orchestra pieces – this one runs just over a quarter hour – in favor of “big” symphonies and concerti, reserving the “short piece” slot for something contemporary. Our loss, since we miss out on hearing the huge repertory of romantic overtures, tone poems and suites that were common in programs from early in the 20th century.) The 3rd Symphony is the most difficult to bring off; tempo selection in the first movement is tricky, and it ends quietly so conductors don’t like to use it to end a concert. On the other hand, it is the most concise and intimate of the Brahms symphonies, and when it works, it’s just terrific.

I think it is difficult to judge an orchestra when it is not playing in its home hall and is being led by a guest conductor. It is hard to know whether what one is hearing has more to do with the leadership on the podium and the acoustic of a strange hall than with the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble. I had a sense throughout the concert that the VPO was a very talented orchestra that fell short of the highest standards we tend to expect from orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name three major orchestra that perform frequently in New York. By contrast, the VPO sounded to me less precise, less colorful, less well-blended. I have trouble getting past the principal oboe sound (presented by different players in the two halves of the concert), which sets the tone for an orchestra, and which — perhaps by Vienna tradition — is thinner, more piercing, and less rich than the sound cultivated by principal oboe players in U.S. orchestras. Indeed, all the woodwinds have a distinctive sound that seems to me less rich, less legato, more idiosyncratic. Perhaps part of the issue for me is the lack of “hybrid vigor” in an orchestra like the VPO. This appeared to be an all-Caucasian group, overwhelmingly male, and by repute most of the players were students of VPO members before gaining admission to the orchestra. There is a feeling of an inbred traditional style of playing. Perhaps this means that what was presented last night sounded more like what Brahms would have heard at performances of his orchestra music in Vienna in the latter part of the 19th century than one would hear from the U.S. orchestra. But I couldn’t help noting the extraordinary contrast with the NY Philharmonic, where the string sections have a heavy representation of Asian musicians — mainly women — and women are also well-represented in the wind sections. Last night, there was only one woman on the stage playing a wind instrument, the second oboe during the Brahms Symphony, and during the first half of the concert, there could not have been more than 5 or 6 women on the stage, none in the basses or violas or cellos, and a handful in the violin sections. I found myself thinking several times that this orchestra needed some livening up!! They played well, they gave the conductor what he was asking for, but I was not totally enthusiastic about the results.

Probably the best playing of the night came with the encore, “Seid umschlunger Millionen” Waltzes, Op. 443, by Johann Strauss II. No announcement was made, leaving audience members around me puzzled, apart from guessing that it was by Johann Strauss, as this is not one of the more familiar Strauss waltz sequences. Of course, Carnegie identifies encores after the event on their website under the calendar entry for the concert….

It is also difficult to judge a conductor based on a guest-conducting stint, and I’ve little past experience with Maestro Nelsons, who has generated a big reputation from his work on European podiums and recordings. He produced a coherent statement in the Brahms symphony, and that is an achievement, since it is the most difficult of the four. The Haydn Variations were well-characterized, the Haydn symphony was memorable. We will hear more of him when he is regularly conducting the Boston Symphony in its Carnegie Hall visits, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity.

My second half of March begins tonight with a 5 Boroughs Music Festival concert of French baroque music in Queens, tomorrow’s NY Philharmonic Nielsen concert, a Peoples’ Symphony program Sunday afternoon with the Dover Quarter and Leon Fleisher, and a return to Carnegie Sunday night for the grand finale of the Vienna Philharmonic’s Festival residency – a three-hour marathon survey of Viennese music led by Zubin Mehta, centered on Gil Shaham playing the Korngold Violin Concerto. It will be quite a music-heavy weekend, on which I will report when it is all over.

Weekend Report: Massenet’s Werther at the Metropolitan Opera & Brahms’s Cello Sonatas at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: February 23rd, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was mired in the 19th century for my musical weekend. On Saturday afternoon, I attended a performance of Jules Massenet’s opera, “Werther,” at the Metropolitan Opera, and on Sunday afternoon, the first Isaac Stern Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall, a recital of music for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

Massenet’s opera, inspired by Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, is not a first-rate piece in my book. Although Massenet was certainly a proficient composer, in terms of technical skill in harmony and orchestration, and the piece is sufficiently dramatic to sustain interest, at least in the last two acts, I find the music undistinguished and the first act rather boring. That said, Saturday’s cast did about all that could be done for it, and one couldn’t ask for a better Werther than Jonas Kaufmann or a better Charlotte than Sophie Koch. Conductor Alain Altinoglu kept things moving, the Met orchestra did a great job with Massenet’s orchestration (which provides lots of great solo opportunities for the woodwinds in particular), and I was impressed by the excellent production. I don’t understand why one would bother to update the story from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, and in one respect the updating was bungled: there is a reference in the libretto to Charlotte singing songs to Werther’s harpsichord accompaniment, and they left that reference in. Nobody would be playing a harpsichord in a German village in the 1890s! (What was a harpsichord doing in Charlotte’s room in Act 3, anyway? Should have been a piano….) This is a new production, replacing one that debuted in 1999. Why bother? There are other Massenet operas that the Met hasn’t done lately. If they want to do Massenet, why spend a fortune on a new production of a piece they were performing a decade ago? I remember an entertaining production of Massenet’s Don Quixote at City Opera decades ago, which would be more of a novelty to revive, and how about Le Cid with the fantastic ballet music. (No dancing, really, in this Werther, apart from a brief waltz at the ball.) Or how about Manon, the one Massenet opera with music really worth reviving….? Well, a house like the Met can hardly please everybody, and I suppose one should be grateful for a production that is at least consonant with the story that is being presented, rather than weird abstract patterns suspended from the ceiling and putting ancient myths in the equivalent of outer space… No Eurotrash here, thankfully.

At Carnegie, it was “old home day” for Ma and Ax, who used to play chamber music on that stage regularly with Isaac Stern, and made many recordings with him as well. Hearing them in the Brahms sonatas was no novelty – after all, they made two recordings of the sonatas, one for SONY when they were young, and one for RCA when they were middle-aged, and now heading towards old age they are playing them again. I generally don’t like recitals that are entirely turned over to one composer, and although I love Brahms in chamber music, by intermission I was getting to think that an entire recital of Brahms sonatas would be too much. They started with Cello Sonata No. 1, Op. 38, an early work in which Brahms was still struggling with how to combine the cello and the piano, instruments that he didn’t feel really worked well together. The piece has always struck me as a bit overextended. Brahms originally composed 4 movements, then dropped the slow movement (Adagio affettuoso) because it made the piece too long, but the remaining three movements take almost half an hour, and the middle movement, despite the allegretto time signature, really sags in the middle. I thought Ma’s playing, while beautiful, was rather understated, and Ax was so restrained and smoothed out that the piece seemed quite somnolent. They followed this up with Paul Klengel’s transcription for cello and piano of the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78. Klengel moved it down to D Major to accommodate the cello’s range, but I was dubious about how effective this would be, especially since Ma’s unassertive approach continued in this piece. As I said, coming in to the intermission I was not wildly excited about the forthcoming second half.

But, of course, the Op. 99 Cello Sonata is from that wonderful final period when Brahms’s mature compositional style could not place a foot wrong. He built the piece around the slow movement he had rejected from the first sonata, but the concise writing he had achieved by this point in his life could accommodate a four-movement work that is, in total, about the same length of the earlier sonata. But this time the themes are more memorable, worked out in a more interesting way, and both Ma and Ax seemed to have taken a livelier approach as well. Ax, in particular, seemed less restrained and more involved in the drama of the piece, and Ma became more assertive. Perhaps the heroic opening of the first movement helped in that respect. Anyway, I found myself totally absorbed and glad that we had the 2nd Sonata. I think the program would have benefited by some contrast in the first half. All-Brahms is a heavy sell.

They also played Brahms for an encore. Now, here’s a silly thing. After intermission, Ma and Ax used microphones to make a few remarks about Isaac Stern’s role in their careers and his important work in saving Carnegie Hall, and introduced some members of Stern’s family who were present. But then when it came to announced the encore, Ax did not pick up a microphone (they were sitting on a small table behind the piano, where the accompanist had placed them after the announcements), instead speaking unamplified and, generally, unheard. They played the slow movement from another sonata, but I didn’t hear the announcement so I’m guessing it was a slow movement from one of the viola sonatas, but it could be one of the other violin sonatas. I’ll have to check scores when I get home. But, c’mon guys. They had a mic on stage. Why not use it?

And a note to Carnegie Hall from a long-suffering patron (going back to 1977). Do something about the inadequate restroom facilities. Figure out a way to put restrooms on the balcony level. Get some architects in. It can be done if you really care to do it.

PS – The Carnegie Hall website says that the encore was the slow movement from Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

Barati & Wurtz at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

Posted on: November 3rd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

This afternoon Peoples’ Symphony Concerts presented a recital by Hungarian-born musicians, Kristof Barati (violinist) and Klara Wurtz (pianist), at New York’s Town Hall.  They presented a conservative program that could have been presented more than a century ago without raising an eyebrow: Beethoven’s Sonatas Nos. 4 & 9, Op. 23 and Op. 47 (the “Kreutzer Sonata”), and Brahms’ Sonata No. 1, Op. 78.  These are all masterpieces and I have no objection to their presentation, but I think they would have done well to include at least one more recent piece on the program.  Setting that aside, however, this was a magnificent recital.

Mr. Barati is, despite his relative youth, a mature artist who impresses not only with his fine technique in the challenging fast passages but also by the great artistry with which he plays the more lyrical passages.  I thought that in each sonata the slow sections were the most impressive, and especially in the Brahms.  (Their encore brought this home even more, as they played the adagio from Brahms’ 3rd Violin Sonata.)  His career so far has evidently been mainly in Europe, but it is time he had more exposure in the United States.   American orchestras should be paying attention. 

Ms. Wurtz has had more U.S. exposure, but is still not quite a familiar name here.  She had some momentary struggles, especially in the first movement of the Kreutzer sonata, when Beethoven crams in so many notes that it is not surprising that a few may get smudged or dropped along the way, but generally she held up her side well and was quite impressive.  She has recorded a wide swathe of the piano standard reportory for the budget Brilliant Classics label (based in the Netherlands but widely available in the US), and she has joined with Barati in recording a set of the Beethoven sonatas that has been well-reviewed but which I haven’t heard. 

After hearing the two of them today, that recording is on my list! 

This concert was another triumph for Peoples’ Symphony from an artistic viewpoint, but surprisingly the attendance seemed a bit light.  This is particularly surprising when the series is almost entirely sold out on subscription.  The problem may be that the tickets are so reasonably priced that people subscribe to be sure of getting the big names on the series (in this case, Radu Lupu on January 12) and don’t mind missing a few.  Actually, to my taste the best concerts coming up are likely some being presented at Washington Irving High School on Saturday nights: Alexander Tharaud on March 1, Jeremy Denk on April 12, and some excellent chamber groups: East Coast Chamber Orchestra, Juilliard Quartet, and Ying Quartet.  All the Peoples’ Symphony series are bargain-priced and worth the effort to acquire.  I’m rarely disappointed by any of the artists that Frank Salomon selects.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Launches 2013-14 Carnegie Series with Dynamite Beethoven Eroica

Posted on: October 10th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended the first concert for this season’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra series at Carnegie Hall.   The OCO, which operates without a conductor, performed nine of Johannes Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, originally written for vocal quartet and piano duo but orchestrated by the composer, a set of variations for piano and orchestra by jazzman Brad Mehldau, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.  The juxtaposition of works on this program was a bit unfair to Mehldau, putting him in competition with one of the greatest symphonic compositions by one of the greatest of all composers.  And so it proved last night, as I found Mr. Mehldau’s piece to be bland and overextended and much outweighed in quality and impact by the Beethoven.

Although I thought the Brahms dances were lovely and played with much grace by the orchestra, I would question selecting them to open the season.  These pieces struck me as slight, almost to the extent of being background music rather than concert pieces calculated to hold an audience’s attention.  Perhaps they would make a lovely interlude between two heavier works, but they struck me as too insubstantial to usher in a new season in Carnegie Hall.  They were conceived by Brahms to animate poetry, and music so conceived sometimes struggles to stand on its own without the words, even when arranged for instrumental performance by the composer.  I suspect Brahms did this for the money, not out of any great inner compulsion to orchestrate these pieces.  On the other hand, Brahms was notorious for burning lots of manuscripts that he judged not up to his rigorous standards, so that these survived suggests that this hyper-self-critical composer thought well of them.

My previous experience with Brad  Mehldau was a solo piano recital he gave years ago as part of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series at Washington Irving High School.  My reaction then was that he was a fluent, graceful pianist whose music fell into predictable patterns without exciting great interest on my part.  I had much the same reaction last night.  I’m trying not to let my previous experience with his music prejudice me, and I have to reiterate that I find him a pleasingly fluent pianist, although I thought his playing was more effective in his brief solo encore, which seemed to range further in terms of dynamics and venturesome harmony than the main piece did.  Perhaps the problem is that the theme he chose for his variations was not particularly interesting or memorable, although that problem has not stood in the way of the greatest variation writers who could take a negligible scrap of melody and stretch it into a masterpiece of music variety.  I thought the orchestration was skillfully done, however.  Certainly the man has talent.  I think if he revised the piece to be shorter it would be more effective.  A genius like Bach (Goldberg Variations) or Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) or Brahms (Paganini Variations) can sustained interest in a variation set over an extended period of time, but this piece – asserted in the program book to run about 37 minutes — struck me as just too long.

The Beethoven!  Wow!  There are a handful of works in the history of music that mark quantum leaps in changing the conversation, and this is one of them.  (Another, whose centennial we celebrate this year, is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.)  Surely one can hear some of the seeds of this work in the previous two symphonies, but somehow this symphony is speaking a new language, reaching heights of drama and intensity far beyond what Beethoven had previously done, and surpassing in this respect the work of his most illustrious immediate predecessors on the Vienna musical scene, Mozart and Haydn.

Furthermore, this is probably one of the first symphonies that most people would suggest needs a conductor to hold things together, manage instrumental balances and transitional passages, and impose an overall structural vision.  But the OCO would reject such a suggestion, and their performance last night was not lacking in any of these respects.  Balances were deftly handled, transitional passages showed no signs of strain, and the performance had an overall dramatic arc and logic that were most compelling.  This was a fast-paced performance (no first-movement repeat, which was a smart move given how late the concert was running), and the OCO is a virtuoso band that can play this music fast without it seeming rushed or strained.  I could have wished for a few extra desks in each of the string sections to make a greater impact in the big moments, but the ear adjusts, dynamics are relative, and where it really counted in the heart of the great funeral march and in the final peroration of the finale, OCO did not come up short in terms of volume and amplitude of sound.  (There is one particularly lush string chord in the adagio that always gives me chills, and OCO nailed it with a rich, thick, well-accented chord that sounded like a much bigger string section.)   The three horn players made an imposing sound in the trio of the scherzo, and all the wind soloists performed their big solos impeccably.

On top of this excellent performance, we had a display of great professionalism in the face of adversity from the first and second chair viola players during the adagio.  A string snapped on the first chair’s instrument; a quick swap took place with the second chair, who played along on three strings until an opportune moment; then he reached behind the music on the stand to pull out a package with a replacement string (is it so common for string players to have replacement strings ready for emergency use on their stands??) and restring the instrument and tune it, quite rapidly with a minimum of fuss; then, after “playing it in,” he swapped it back to the first chair at another opportune moment when the violas had a few beats of rest.  All of this was done so unobtrusively that I suspect here were members of the orchestra who may not have even been aware that it was happening.  I followed the entire drama with my opera glasses (sitting in Row A in the balcony) and was very impressed at how efficiently they handled it.

Although I felt a bit let down by the first half of the concert, the Eroica swept me away with its excellence and excitement, and I consider OCO well-launched for the new season.  I’m eagerly anticipating their next Carnegie Hall concert on December 7.  Martin Frost will perform the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, one of that composer’s greatest (and latest) works, and the program will end with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, a work whose obvious merit led to its regular performance back in the early middle years of the 20th century by old-fashioned conductors such as Toscanini, Walter and Koussevitzky who otherwise eschewed all but the last few Mozart symphonies  (35, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41).  The concert begins with a Handel Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 2), and will include Irving Fine’s “Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra.”  OCO pitches this as being to honor the late composer on his upcoming centenary, but I would also think it would be an appropriate memorial for December 7, the date on which we mark the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the United States’ entrance into World War II.

David Afkham Debut at Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center

Posted on: August 18th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended my second (and last) Mostly Mozart Festival Concert for this summer.  The big news, as far as I am concerned, is the New York conducting debut of David Afkham, a young (b. 1983) German conductor, who led the orchestra in an all-Brahms concert. 

Mr. Afkham, born in Freiburg and educated there and in Weimar, has had some prominent mentors: Bernard Haitink and Valery Gergiev (with whom Afkham served two years as assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra).  He has been assistant conductor of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra for three years, and will be taking up his first important appointment, as principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra, in 2014.  In the U.S., he’s already appeared with the Los Angeles, Cleveland and Seattle orchestras, and over the next two years will also be conducting in Cincinnati.  He’s hit many major podia in Europe, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the LSO, and the La Scala Philharmonic, and has won several young conductor contests.  So clearly he has the foundation for an international conducting career.

To judge by his work last night, in the second of two presentations of this program, he’s ready!  The first half brought Brahms’ Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102, and the concert concluded with the Symphony No. 2, Op. 73.

Soloists for the concerto were Vadim Repin and Truls Mork, both of whom I’ve heard before both in concert and on recordings.  Mork is a particular favorite.  As is not unusual with performances of this concerto, the cellist outshown the violinist.  I think this is partly because there are only a handful of cello concerti in the active symphonic repertory, and this is one of them, but there are too many violin concerti to count, so odds are, almost always, that the cellist will be a veteran of the piece while the violinist will not be quite so familiar with it.  And this tends to show.  Repin was fine, but Mork was extraordinary, much more at ease with the music.  Afkham gave them a sturdy framework within which to play, and they did a fine job.  The Mostly Mozart Orchestra wind soloists are an excellent bunch, and Brahms gives all of the principals chances to shine, of which they took full advantage. 

And, even more so in the symphony, with big solos splendidly played by principal hornist Lawrence DiBello, oboist Randall Ellis, clarinetist Jon Manasse, flutist Yoobin Son, and bassoonist Marc Goldberg.  The brass also get a fine workout in this piece, especially the finale, and, as always, timpanist David Punto was superb in his big solo spots, especially the quiet ones in the first movement.  The string section of this orchestra is really chamber orchestra size, and in some late romantic works that could be a handicap, but this symphony benefits from the clarity that a slightly smaller strong section provides, and one never had a sense that the string sound was inadequately sumptuous.  Although this one month a year orchestra can’t hope to have the kind of cohesion and tightly-knit ensemble regularly displayed by the NY Philharmonic, they come very close, and as the Mostly Mozart season progresses, they constantly get stronger.  I thought the playing last night was at a higher level than I heard a week ago in Beethoven’s 5th, a performance that impressed me favorably.

Afkham took a very romantic view of the piece, bending the tempo nicely to mark transactions, finding bits of emphasis and inflexion in the long lines, achieving the desirable lightness in the faster sections of the third movement, and making a really sumptuous feast out of the big tunes in the finale.  

I hope that people from the NY Philharmonic pay attention to the young conductor debuts at Mostly Mozart, because the Philharmonic guest conductor list is a bit stodgy and predictable, and they need to help develop the conductors of the future by giving more of them guest shots.  Afkham should be in line for one, that’s for sure!

NYC Musical Diary – More May Concerts – Detroit SO, Alarm Will Sound, Musicians From Marlboro

Posted on: June 3rd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Being busy with final exams and grading, I haven’t been to as many concerts as usual over the past few weeks, but I wanted to comment about a few:

May 10 in Carnegie Hall I attended one of their “Spring for Music” concerts, a presentation of the four symphonies of Charles Ives by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  I’ve been an Ives fan since high school days, when I performed the double bass in a performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 2 by the Oneonta (NY) Symphony Orchestra.  Preparing for that experience I acquired the stereo LP of Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the NY Philharmonic as well as a full score published by Peer International.  I was shocked – shocked! – to discover that Bernstein made cuts in the piece when he recorded.  (Cuts that he retained when he made a new recording with the New York Philharmonic for DG two decades later, I might add.)  Who was he to second-guess the composer in that way?  (I’ve always been upset to discover when conductors have made cuts in a piece.  I once attended a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony at the NY Philharmonic by a conductor who shall remain nameless where the performance was so heavily cut that I commented to my companion on that occasion that we had just heard a performance of “highlights” from Rach’s 2nd Symphony!)

Anyway, as far as I could tell everything was complete and uncut on May 10, resulting in a very long but gratifying concert.  First I should say that, never having heard this orchestra live before, I was extremely impressed, especially in light of the labor problems they’ve had and the slightly smaller string section than might have been ideal for all but the 3rd Symphony (which was intended by Ives for chamber orchestra).  On the other hand, they managed a big sound that was not inferior to what I’ve heard from larger ensembles playing in that space.  Slatkin has them playing to a very high technical standard, and the orchestra also seemed very engaged with and enthusiastic about the music.

Ives’s 1st Symphony, largely written while he was a Yale undergraduate, owes a heavy debt to Dvorak but still includes touches of harmony and orchestration that foreshadow the mature Ives of the 2nd Symphony to come.  I was particularly impressed in this performance by the gorgeous Adagio molto, where the Dvorak influence is at its heaviest but where the composer has made the most structurally and expressly coherent statement in his symphony.  The piece could even stand along as a tone poem and earn rave reviews.

The 2nd Symphony is usually a new listener’s way into Ives, as the most listener-friendly “Americana” piece he composed, full of allusions to American patriotic songs and hymn tunes, building to a finale dominated by “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” motifs from which permeate the earlier movements, giving an interesting unity to the work.  There are some “romantic” parts where some conductors go “all squishy” and lose the rhythmic profile, but Slatkin did not, providing a performance that rivals the old Bernstein while besting him with completeness (and better playing than the NYP was capable of giving back in the 1960s).

Within the context of the four symphonies, I thought the 3rd came through as the weakest.  Possibly Slatkin doesn’t care for it as much as the others, or perhaps it is just the limitations of the piece, being a rather slender thing between the big Nos. 2 & 4.  I suspect it didn’t get as much rehearsal time as the others, because this was the only one in which I felt ensemble was a bit slack and some of the key lines in the strings were not as precisely articulated as one could want.

This was the third performance I’d heard this season of the 4th Symphony – previously played by Botstein and the American Symphony and Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic – but I thought it was the best.  Slatkin spent some time helping the audience appreciate Ives’s audacity by taking apart some of the challenging 2nd movement and giving us examples of the different lines being combined.  The first time I listened to this piece – the old Stokowski/ASO recording back when I was in high school – I could make heads or tails out of that second movement. The key, I eventually learned, was that it is a huge scherzo, a great jest, and one has to just sit back and let it happen, without trying to find any rhyme or reason in it.  It is Ives taking  laugh at the absurdities of human existence, and heard that way, it is actually quite comical.  The third movement is Ives’s bow to traditionalism, taking a fugue he originally wrote for string quartet and tricking it out with a big, luscious string-dominated sound, but just to make sure you get get the joke, insert a quote toward the end from a religious song.  The finale is a cosmic mash-up, the music of the spheres, the universal sounds….  Slatkin/Detroit hit the target in every movement and gave the best Ives 4th I’ve ever heard live or on record.

It would be great if Naxos would release a complete Ives Symphonies set by these performers, even though it already has three of the symphonies in its catalogue with others.  They have Slatkin remaking his old Rachmaninoff Symphony recordings with Detroit (he already had recorded them as a youngster in St. Louis), but I think there is less need for those recordings than for really good recordings of Ives. 

The next evening, May 11, I attended a Musicians from Marlboro Concert presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at the High School of Fashion Industries auditorium.  Quite a contrast with Carnegie Hall.  The bill of fare was Stravinsky Concertino for String Quartet, Britten String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 26.  My favorite piece was the Brahms.  Indeed, in my humble opinion, Brahms was the greatest composer of chamber music in the 19th century, and perhaps for all time (although one must be cautious about predicting the future).  I’ve yet to hear any chamber piece by Brahms that I did not eventually conclude was a great masterpiece.  And I though these performers did it justice: Emilie-Anne Gendron (violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Gabriel Cabezas (cello), Matan Porat (piano).  The Britten I didn’t care for as much, perhaps because I don’t know it very well and did not find it particularly engaging in this performance, despite strenuous efforts by the performers to convince me.  But the same performers did a fine job with the Stravinsky, which I greatly enjoyed.  The line-up was: Bella Hristova and Adnbi Um (violins, switching off first desk between the two pieces), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), and Angela Park (cello).

Next on my concert calender was a special event, on May 16 – the Juilliard graduation recital by Lachlan Glen & Friends.  Mr. Glen was co-organizer of the season-long Schubert lieder series together with Jonathan Ware, and I had so enjoyed attending many of those concerts that I jumped at the opportunity when Lachlan invited me to his graduation recital.  He majored in collaborative performance, which means that almost everything on the program involved him performing with other musicians, and it says alot about the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues at Juilliard that he had a stellar bunch of collaborators.  The singers included Rachael Wilson, Kyle Bielfield, Matthew Morris and Emmett O’Hanlon.  Tavi Ungerleider offered some terrific cello playing (especially a movement from the Rachmaninoff Sonata that was quite moving), and Dimitri Dover collaborated on some 4-hand piano music.  Lachlan has grown fantastically as a performer and collaborative artist over the past year, as I witnessed attending the Schubert concerts, starting with good technique and lots of enthusiasm and developing much subtlety of dynamic control and phrasing.  He surely has a great career ahead of him.  He’ll be joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Program this summer.

My most recent concert experience involved another friend, Alan Pierson, conducting his Irish group, the Crash Ensemble, in a fantastic evening at Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall small ensemble venue) on May 17.  Crash Ensemble was actually started by its Musical Director, Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, in 1997, and Alan Pierson became its conductor several seasons ago.  (He’s best known as artistic director of the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound and as the musical director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.)   This concert was a logical development of the recent Nonesuch recording by Pierson and Crash, collaborating with Dawn Upshaw and Iarla O Lionaird (Irish folk vocalist) on recent compositions by Dennehy, “That the Night Come” (Upshaw) and “Gra agus Bas” (O Lionaird).  Fine as that recording is, hearing the pieces performed live was a special treat and gave them additional meaning for me.  They began the program with two exciting songs by Osvaldo Golijov, “Lua Descolorida” and “How Slow the Wind.”   I have Upshaw’s recording of “Lua Descolorida,” where it has a piano accompaniment.  In this performance, the piece was accompanied by string quartet.  Golijov has also used it, with a different orchestration, in his San Marco Passion.  The lovely piece is lovely in any format, but I think Upshaw’s performance with the string accompaniment was more effective than the recording with piano accompaniment.

So, that’s my concert calendar for May concluded.  The NY Philharmonic was away on tour, but I’ll be hearing them a few times in June and looking forward to their Summertime Classics in July.

Phantasmata (Etc.) at the Philharmonic

Posted on: February 23rd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Thursday night’s performance by the New York Philharmonic included the local premiere of the complete “Phantasmata” by Christopher Rouse, followed by Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” with soloist Jan Vogler, and concluding with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 68.  Music Director Alan Gilbert conducted, and Mr. Rouse, the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, was present for the festivities.

“Phantasmata” is a three-movement suite. The second movement, “The Infernal Machine,” was completed several years before the other movements, and received its NY Philharmonic premiere in 1984.  (The other two pieces were completed and the entire set premiered in 1985.)  I get feelings of great nostalgia for my youth whenever I hear music by Christopher Rouse, because we overlapped at Cornell University, and I remember seeing him around the music department and hearing some of his compositions in student composer concerts during my undergraduate years in the early 1970s.  He earned his doctoral degree from Cornell in 1977, after having graduated from Oberlin and pursued private studies for a few years with various significant composers. 

I always enjoy his music.  There is great inventiveness in orchestration on display, expert manipulation of the instruments, a gift for dramatic statement, and, in the faster music, infectious rhythms.  I found myself practically dancing in my seat during the last movement, titled “Bump,” which the composer characterizes as a “nightmare conga.”   All three movements (the first is titled, perhaps a bit pretentiously, “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 A.M.”) are meant to evoke dream-states, and the titles are drawn from the writings of Paracelsus, who, according to the program notes, “refers to phantasmata as ‘hallucinations created by thought.'”

Certainly that first movement has a hallucinatory atmosphere, quiet, mysterious, intense, emerging from silence and receding back again.  “Infernal Machine” is a “moto perpetuo” that makes the works of that name by Paganini and Strauss seem tame.  And “Bump,” as noted, is a wild dance that had the hall rocking. 

I suspect that a disproportionate amount of the rehearsal time for this program went into the unfamiliar new piece, especially with a much-played classic by Brahms taking up half the program.  The Philharmonic sounded assured and well-focused for the Rouse premiere, and I hope that a recording from the concert eventually makes it’s way to the orchestra’s CD label.

I was less enthusiastic about the Bloch, but not because of the performance.  The piece is described as a “rhapsody” and I find it to be a big, garrulous and overextended, formless sort of thing.  There are many wonderful moments — generations of Hollywood composers have stolen gorgeous orchestral effects from Bloch!–and the cello has lots of wonderful lyrical effusions, well played by Vogler, but I do find that the piece just meanders too much to hold my attention throughout.  Bloch needed a firm editor.

Finally, the Brahms.  I treasure each of the four Brahms symphonies. They are all masterpieces, each with its own personality but all clearly the products of the same musical genius.  But the First has a special place in my heart, especially since I conceived the idea, while listening years ago to Klaus Tennstedt’s EMI recording with the London Philharmonic, that the first movement — and in some sense the entire piece — is a huge psychodrama in which Brahms comes to terms with the looming shadow of Beethoven, struggles to free himself through the first movement (especially the “development” section), emerging triumphant in the finale.  Most people — including the program note author for the NYP — relay the anecdote about Brahms declaring in 1872 that he would not write a symphony, stating “You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you,” referring to Beethoven.  At the time, Brahms had already sketched out the first movement of this symphony a decade earlier, but the project had stalled and he didn’t complete the work until 1876.  And, of course, everybody notes the resemblance of the “big tune” in the finale to the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  

But I think these annotators and commentators are missing the point by focusing on the wrong Beethoven symphony.  The psychodrama plays itself out through references to the opening motif of the Beethoven 5th – the famous “da da da daaaaaaaa” that is probably the most famous symphonic opening of them all.  Listen carefully to the Brahms first movement and note that dramatic moment when the first theme of the allegro grinds to a halt and the violas suddenly play, aggressively: “da da da daaaa, da da da daaaaaa,  da da da daaaadadada, dada…”  From then on that rhythmic motif is in constant struggle with Brahms’s own material, although things calm down in the coda of the movement, where the Beethoven motif is quietly asserted by the tympani.  At the beginning of the second movement, the strings play their quiet opening phrase which ends with the horns hinting quietly at the Beethoven motif, which then pretty much disappears, and never fully emerges in the movement.  The lighter-toned third movement comes and goes without the Beethoven motif appearing in full, although I find it hinted at in the middle of the movement.  In the finale, of course, the big tune reminiscent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony dominates the proceedings, as if Brahms has come to terms with his Beethovenian inheritance and is now accepting his role as Beethoven’s successor.  At the end of the symphony, however, check out the rhythm of the final triumphant chords, this time in C major (not C minor as in the first movement and the Beethoven original) – Da, Da, Da, Daaaa!  Triumphantly in the major, but now fully assimilated by Brahms.  He has accepted his role as symphonic successor to Beethoven, minor has moved to major…

So when I listen to this symphony, I’m again participating as a listener in this psychodrama.  The Philharmonic’s energetic performance reliably conveyed all of this.  Gilbert selects just the right tempi.  I did feel that the symphony might have been a bit underrehearsed and not quite “played in” for the Thursday performance, as there were a few less-than-unanimous wind chords and a few solo passages were a shade insecure.  This is a great orchestra, but even the greatest orchestra can fall short of a perfect performance, which I felt to be the case on Thursday night.  I suspect things were tighter for the Friday rendition, but that’s their only other shot at this program, because the NYP did not schedule the usual Saturday night repeat.  (Are they out of town for a run-out concert?  I thought it curious that the Rouse piece would only get two performances.)   Rehearsals start imminently for next week’s run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.”)

Orchestral Weekend: NYP/Nelsons and ASO/Botstein

Posted on: February 12th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

American Symphony Explores Works of the 1880s at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: January 26th, 2013 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

Leon Botstein, the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra for the past twenty years, has emphasized thematic programming in constructing the orchestra’s concert schedule. There is always a thematic link of some sort between the pieces presented in a multi-piece program, and most of the orchestra’s annual Vanguard Series in New York City consists of such programs. Last night at Carnegie Hall, the theme was “What Makes a Masterpiece.” Botstein offered performances of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 13, Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 50 (claimed to be the U.S. premiere), and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 98. In his introduction to the concert, Botstein wrote that “tonight’s concert was designed to challenge received wisdom about the merits of musical works, and the criteria by which we judge music.” Botstein argues, in effect, that history can be unfair and mistaken, and that this concert was intended to prove the point.
Brahms’s 4th Symphony is performed regularly by all major symphony orchestras as an acknowledged masterpiece in the core of the standard repertory, and has received hundreds of recordings. Dvorak’s 4th Symphony, by comparison, is seldom performed, is regarded as an “early” work that is not quite ready for prime time, and has been recorded only in the context of recordings of the complete cycle of his nine symphonies, of which one current on-line catalogue suggests there are just shy of a dozen. Von Herzogenberg’s first of two symphonies, never previously played in America and rarely exhumed in Europe, enjoys a single recording by a second-rank central European radio orchestra on a record label that specializes in reviving obscurities. These three works were composed within a few years of each other, and share the idiom of central European Romanticism.
Botstein asserts that all three are worth hearing, and I agree, but I think the judgment of history on their relative merits is fair, and last night’s performances bore this out.

Dvorak’s 4th, composed in 1874 and revised for a possible performance in 1887-88, was not performed during the composer’s lifetime, languishing among his unpublished manuscripts until it finally received its premiere in Prague in 1982. Herzogenberg’s symphony was composed in 1885, promptly published, presumably performed (the program notes were ambiguous on this point), and quickly fell into obscurity as a poor copy of Brahms. Brahms’s 4th, a work of his full maturity (1884-85) that took some time to attain popularity, was recognized as an important symphonic statement by a major composer almost immediately.

Each of the symphonies is in four movements. Each begins with a large movement structured in some version of classic sonata form. Each continues with a slower, song-form movement, followed by a scherzo, and each concludes with a faster-paced movement intended to end with a “major statement.”
Dvorak’s symphony struck me as worth hearing, but not very often, and only one movement – the scherzo – stood out as really memorable. Indeed, the performance quickly brought to mind the only other time I’ve heard it performed at a symphony concert, back in the 1980s, I believe, when James Conlon selected it as the major work for his New York Philharmonic debut. I even recalled the surprised delight with which I heard the striding woodwind theme in that third movement that sounds like it could have come out of a middle-period Verdi opera. There are other felicities in this score. I thought the second theme in the first movement was absolutely gorgeous, and much of the orchestration already bore the distinctive sound of the Dvorak orchestra that really reached fruition in the 7th Symphony (especially the use of woodwinds). But as the orchestra surged past the exposition of themes in the opening movement and headed into the development section, it seemed to me that Dvorak did not quite know what to do with his themes, how to write a development that would retain the listener’s interest and set things up for the recapitulation. The second movement began with promise, but again I found that he didn’t quite know how to take those potentially interesting themes and develop them in an interesting way. The finale struck me as unduly repetitive, to the point that the closing pages sounded like a spoof of an overblown romantic symphony.
I have less to say about von Herzogenberg’s symphony. I agree with Botstein that it is a solid work that could stand an occasional airing and doesn’t deserve total obscurity. It certain illustrates the impact that Brahms had on the thinking of central European composers. The only movement that struck me as particularly successful, however, was the second movement, whose beautiful themes and orchestration sustain interest where the other movements lost my interest due to the bland themes and unimaginative instrumentation.

After hearing these works, the Brahms symphony seemed even greater by comparison. I heard Kurt Masur conduct the New York Philharmonic in this symphony earlier this season, and the comparison is a bit hard on the ASO, not least because that large Philharmonic string section makes the smaller ASO section sound a bit threadbare by comparison. The ASO had 12 first violins, 11 seconds, 8 violas and cellos, and 6 basses. I don’t remember the precise count from last fall’s concert, but in a work like this the Philharmonic would normally have at least 14 firsts and proportionately larger sections down the line. Gorgeously rich string sound, characteristic of the Philharmonic, was missing and very much missed last night in all three pieces.
Indeed, the ASO last night had about 75 players on the stage, a size intermediate between a chamber orchestra and a major symphony orchestra, but probably comparable in size to the Meiningen Court Orchestra that premiered the Brahms in 1885 with the composer on the podium. An orchestra of this size can make a splendid thing of the Brahms, and the spirit was there last night, as it was in the other two works, but the difference between a major orchestra with a big budget and a part-time orchestra like the ASO is significant. The strings sounded a little scrappy at times in fast passages, and a little scrawny in playing some of the big lyrical lines, the wind soloists were good without being spectacular (and the piccolo player was a bit over-the-top in the Brahms scherzo, overly dominating the woodwind sound at several points, while the triangle player was too reticent), and the brass lacked some of the technical finish that one hears from the Philharmonic. On the other hand, how likely is it that one will ever hear the New York Philharmonic playing Herzogenberg? And has it ever played the Dvorak 4th since that Conlon appearance decades ago?
This is the great merit of the ASO, despite any technical shortcomings. It gives us a chance to hear live performances of music that has fallen from view (or perhaps never even surfaced!), and lets us think about the valuable question that Botstein posed: Why are some pieces ubiquitous and others not? My answer, which may be too simplistic, is that Brahms was a musical genius of the first rank, Dvorak a musical genius of lesser rank, and Herzogenberg was competent but not a musical genius. Competence can get you only so far without inspiration. Dvorak wrote nine symphonies; a few of them are played regularly, but some of them are not, and for good reason. Brahms wrote four symphonies, each a supreme masterpiece, each played with regularity (although conductors are less likely to favor the 3rd because it is the most difficult to “bring off” and doesn’t end with the kind of rousing finish that whips up the applause of the audience.)


Last night, there was applause after each movement of each piece. My regular concert-going companion found this disturbing, arguing that it was an intrusion into the continuity of pieces that were designed as multi-movement works. I couldn’t agree with him. During the nineteenth century, applause after movements was customary, and most composers would have been quite disappointed by its absence. (Indeed, in the 1790s, when Joseph Haydn’s late symphonies received their London premieres, contemporary press accounts mention that at times applause after a movement was so vociferous that the movement would be encored before proceeding to the next!). The idea of dead silence after a first movement of a symphony, which became customary by the mid-20th century, is totally unnatural if the first movement – as many do – ends in a blaze of glory with emphatic loud chords from the full orchestra. Silence at the end of the first movement of Brahms’s 4th is emotionally inappropriate, in my view. That ending calls out for an emotional release of approval from the audience. And if the second movement is gorgeous – as it truly is—the audience’s appreciation expressed in applause is totally appropriate. Beethoven, for one, knew how to prevent applause if he didn’t want it to break things up: just link movements, as he did with the last two in the 5th, the last three in the 6th, or the last two in the 5th Piano Concerto, or direct the conductor to start the next movement virtually without a break, as he does in the 4th Piano Concerto. Otherwise, applause should be welcomed, as it was before historicism and scholasticism so pervaded the symphony concert experience that novices feared to go because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves by applauding at the wrong time. . .