Weekend Concerts: NYP & LSO at AFH

That's New York Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.  On Saturday night I attended the NYP concert, conducted by Lorin Maazel, of music by Richard Strauss.  On Sunday afternoon I attended the LSO concert, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem."  I thought the LSO concert was much the better of the two.

I was not a big fan of Maazel during his term as music director of the NY Philharmonic.  One of my complaints was lazy programming.  It seemed like most of the concerts were made up of core repertory works that had been played by the orchestra within the past five years.  Little challenge for the listeners or the players.  The performances were polished to a fine degree, but Maazel loved to impose idiosyncratic interpretations on the music, stretching the tempo, breaking the line or arc of the music, emphasizing odd things, etc.  Now and then, when he was really engaged with something new, he could pull off a magnificent performance. 

The past two weeks marked his first return engagement to the NYP since stepping down as music director.  The second week of programming was on my subscription and I actually thought of trading in both tickets for something else, but I really wanted to hear Philip Myers play the Horn Concerto No. 1, so I went. 

In the first half, they played the Alpine Symphony, a big, bloated thing with lots of noise and fury and quite a few really stretched-out, slow-moving passages as well.  I've never been crazy about the piece, but I actually found the performance by Maazel and the orchestra quite enthralling, even though he took rather slower tempi than the norm.  (I happened to be browsing in J&R Music the day before the concert and out of curiosity looked at the Strauss Alpine Symphony bin, noting that the timing for most performances seemed to fall within the range of 51-54 minutes.  Maazel's performance stretched several minutes longer, perhaps nearing an hour in length.)  Maazel conducted from the score, and the piece isn't frequently played (he had never played it with the NYP while he was music director), so I suspect that his acquaintance with it is somewhat less than with the core repertory — which means it was something fresh, something newer for him — even if he has occasionally played it in the past — and so his performance was rather more straightforward than the norm.

This was confirmed for me by the final work on the program, Tyl Eulenspiegel, which Maazel conducted from memory.  In other words, it's a piece he knows by heart and has undoubtedly played numerous times in his career, just the kind of piece where he decides to fool around with things, exaggerate tempo changes, and do the kinds of things that I found off-putting when he was music director.

In the Horn Concerto, I thought Myers was just magnificent, as always.  I can recall attending a social event way back in the 1980s with the great German conductor Klaus Tennstedt, during which the conversation turned to the question of which was his favorite orchestra to conduct.  Tennstedt was too politic to pronounce publicly on that question, but he did say that there were two orchestral musicians for whom he had the highest regard – Joseph Silverstein, then the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, and Philip Myers, the young principal horn player of the New York Philharmonic.  Tennstedt said that Myers was "the best" principal horn of any orchestra he had conducted – and at that point in his career, he had conducted all of the "big 5" U.S. orchestras plus San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and the London Philharmonic.  But for him Myers was "the best."  I've always remembered that, and always marvelled at his playing.  And his humility!  At an event for Philharmonic patrons at which he was the featured speaker a few years ago, he marvelled aloud at the technical skills of the young horn players coming up today and said that in competition with them he might not win a place in the NYP.  But he's a treasure, and his performance Saturday night was superb.

On Sunday, I heard a spectacular "War Requiem" from Noseda and his London contingent.  The LSO Chorus was there as well as the Orchestra, and two of England's leading singers – Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Simon Keenlyside (baritone) – sang the solo settings of Wilfred Owen's poetry.  Definitely luxury casting, as both were at the top of their game yesterday.  The soprano, Sabina Cvilak, who sang Latin (as did the chorus) was also superb.  I hadn't previously heard of her, but the program book indicated she has been making important debuts with major opera companies in recent years. 

The "War Requiem" is a towering anti-war work, written on commission for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during World War II and took a long time for repair to be completed.  At the first performance, two conductors were used to conduct the two separate ensembles within one orchestra for which it is scored.  (The main orchestra is generally associated with the chorus and soprano, while a chamber ensemble is associated with the male soloists.)  Noseda pulled it off solo, as is common today, and held his massive forces together most admirably. 

So, that was my weekend…. except for hours sandwiched in at the office preparing for classes and working on the November issue of Lesbian/Gay Law Notes…. and a brief sojourn to the movies after the concert.  (See my next posting)

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