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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.

My Musical Weekend: Ludwig van Beethoven and Salamone Rossi

Posted on: January 27th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Now, there’s an odd couple… But that was my musical weekend.

On Saturday night, I attended the all-Beethoven program by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I had been privileged to attend a dress rehearsal for part of this program a week earlier at the DiMenna Center, hearing final sessions with piano soloist Nobuyuki Tsoji in the Emperor Concerto, as well as rehearsal of the Coriolan Overture and of their planned encore, the slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto. The dress rehearsal convinced me that it would be a memorable concert, and so it proved. In the intervening week, the musicians had performed this program several times on a tour beginning in Florida, culminating at Carnegie on Saturday night.

Of course, the Carnegie performance was far superior to the dress rehearsal, for two simple reasons: (1) they had really “played in” the program by the time they reached Carnegie, and any rough spots or imprecisions heard at the dress rehearsal were long gone, and (2) the rehearsal space’s close, dry acoustics compared to the marvelous resonance of Carnegie, heard from the first row of the dress circle.

During the first half of the concert, we heard Coriolan Overture and the 2nd Symphony. Both were exemplary, in the familiar Orpheus fashion. This group produces a big sound in Carnegie — only occasionally does one miss a larger string section characteristic of a symphony orchestra — and plays with chamber ensemble subtlety. One senses that a conductor would only get in the way of this group, and having observed them working out interpretive points in a rehearsal, while defering to the designated leader for the piece, was revelatory. I don’t think anybody can really beat them in this repertory.

But the Beethoven was the true miracle. Young Mr. Tsoji has been blind from birth, and I’m not sure how he learns a big work like the Beethoven or plays it with such unerring accuracy without being able to see the keyboard. His playing is firm, composed, full of subtle insights, dashing when required, and fully coordinated with the orchestra, all based on breathing together and weaving himself into the Orpheus chamber ensemble. I bet he probably is more comfortable playing with them than with a conductor, since he can work everything out in rehearsal and have a direct emotional contact with the orchestra, without any unnecessary intermediary. Tempi were brisk in the outer movements, slow and poetic in the central movement, with a velvety touch from the pianist and wonderful interplay with the wind soloists. Extraordinary!!

On Sunday, I attended an event curated by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: an afternoon titled “From Ghetto to Palazzo: The Worlds of Salamone Rossi.” The focus was the somewhat mysterious musical polymath of Mantua from the early 17th century, a colleague and friend of Monteverdi, a violinist in the ducal orchestra who wrote trio sonatas when that form was brand new, Italian madrigals, and polyphonic choral settings of Hebrew liturgical verse that was the first such “composed” Jewish music ever to be published. But nobody is quite sure when he was born, where he learned his art, or where or when he died. Best estimate of dates: 1570-1630. Rossi’s music was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by French and German cantors, somewhat by chance, and then received publication in critical editions during this century, with a boomlet of recordings mainly with the advent of compact discs.

The format of the afternoon: chamber group Folia played from the trio sonatas, then Rossi scholar Francesco Spagnolo from University of California at Berkeley gave a witty talk about what is known and not known about the composer, his life, and the setting for his music. After a brief intermission, they showed a documentary film, “Hebreo: The Search for Salamone Rossi” made by Joseph Rochlitz, focusing on the first concert of Rossi’s music to be given in the ducal palace in Mantua by the young male vocal group Profeti della Quinta. This excellent film served to introduce the music and the singers in a very intimate way, and was followed by the U.S. debut of Profeti della Quinta, who turned out to be an excellent young group.

Indeed, I have their five-year-old recording of music by Rossi, and put it on when I got home, but I could see from the documentation that the group has changed since then — the tenors from that recording are both replaced by different singers today — and they have vastly improved as a group in the intervening years. Somebody should rush them back into a recording studio in their current configuration! Excellent! The entire afternoon was entertaining and informative.
Postscript – A check on-line shows that a new CD of Rossi’s music by this group was issued in November. I now have it on order. Excellent!!

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.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven’s 2nd and 9th Symphonies at Carnegie Hall

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

I was at Carnegie Hall this afternoon for performances of Beethoven’s 2nd and 9th Symphonies by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.  This was the concluding concert of their series of  all the Beethoven symphonies over the past week, led by their music director and conductor, Daniel Barenboim.  I have not previously heard this orchestra in concert, although I’ve heard some recordings.  The orchestra brings together young Israeli Jewish and Palestinian musicians, who rehearse intensively together each year for a series of concerts in Israel and on tour. 

This orchestra made a big impression on me this afternoon.  The excellence of their performances was stunning.  I have not in the past been a big admirer of Barenboim’s conducting, but on this occasion he had me from the first chord of the 2nd Symphony through the last chord of the 9th Symphony.  He is an interventionist conductor.  That is, he very much personalizes the music by introducing his own ideas about phrasing, tempo modification, dynamics, accents, and so forth.  Of course, Beethoven’s scores leave lots of room for interpretation.  I disagree with some of his interpretive ideas — especially the decision to have the first statement of the Ode to Joy theme played so softly as to sound like a ghostly whisper, which was so dramatic that it called attention to itself and away from the music — but on this occasion I thought most of what he was doing was very effective in communicating the emotional message of the music.

But that orchestra!  Their performance could easily stand up to comparison with the leading professional orchestras in this country.  The excellence of the strings, the wind soloists, the percussion…  It was unfortunate that the Carnegie Hall program book did not include the names of the musicians, but I can understand if the political sensitivities in that part of the world would make it imprudent to publish those names.  Unfortunately, then I can’t congratulate these soloists by name.  But I was particularly impressed by the principal horn player, whose rendition of the solos in the adagio of the 9th Symphony were superb – played with ease, in tune and in time, without a hint of strain, and some of these passages truly strike terror in the heart of professional orchestral musicians. 

Beethoven is a bit unfair to the vocal soloists in this piece, giving only the tenor and bass big solo moments, while the soprano and mezzo sing only duets or as part of quartets.  Rene Pape was magnificent in the recitative and first vocal rendition of the Ode to Joy theme, and Piotr Beczala brought the appropriate zest to the military (“Turkish music”) variation.  Diana Damrau and Kate Lindsey sang their parts well, but it seemed luxury casting when there was little for them to do.  The Westminster Symphonic Choir was beyond criticism.  These folks make a big, beautiful sound, and had the tonal and dynamic extremes of the 9th well in hand.  Their director, Joe Miller, took a deserved bow at the end.

The 2nd Symphony received a large-scale, somewhat old-fashioned performance, despite the slight reduction in the size of the string orchestra compared to the 9th.   I’ve often been struck by what a revolutionary piece this 2nd Symphony is.  When I was a youngster first getting to know the Beethoven symphonies in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that the first two symphonies were not that significant, rarely played on their own outside of performances of the entire cycle (and similarly regarding recordings), with the view that the Eroica marked Beethoven’s revolutionary break with the past.  But I hear so many intimations of the composer’s future direction in the 2nd, and the 2nd strikes me as an enormous advance in sophistication over the 1st Symphony.  I would rate the 2nd as Beethoven’s first mature, fully individual symphony, the first with a true scherzo, the first with a fully-developed song-form slow movement (albeit not all that slow), and presenting incredibly dynamic outer movements going well beyond the scale of the Haydn models from which he was developing.

This was an excellent concert, well worth attending, and I hope this orchestra will be coming back to Carnegie Hall in the future.  Now I have the incentive to search out their recorded Beethoven cycle!