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.