Saturday, October 29, 2011

Program Notes for November 2011 Concerts

By Jeffrey Johnson

An Evening of Mozart
When Mozart died on the 5th of December 1791, he was just two months short of his 36th birthday. You can measure this span against your own life if you were born during, or before, 1976. To many of us the year of the bicentennial celebration doesn’t seem that long ago.

This program allows us the opportunity to compare works written at the beginning, middle, and end of Mozart’s life. Unlike many composers, his compositional voice was immediately identifiable, and he wrote more than 636 works within his lifetime.

Compare the musical language heard in Symphony No. 23 with the music of the 5th Violin Concerto. The compositional style of the Violin Concerto, written at age 19 and two years after the Symphony, shows an ability to work within ever more sophisticated interrelationships. Fluency is evident in both works, but with each new work Mozart seemed ready to embrace a wider range of styles and a wider range of emotional experiences.

On the second half of the program we hear the greatest possible contrast in Mozart’s symphonic output: his 1st symphony (written in 1764) followed by his last (written in 1788). One of the important changes you will hear is in the size of the orchestra. Symphony No. 1 was written for a standard ensemble called á8, meaning there are eight different parts that need to be written (2 for the oboes, 2 for the horns, and one each for Violin I, Violin II, Viola, and Cello/Bass).

Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” is written for the orchestra that would become the new standard in the late 18th and early 19th century, with woodwinds in pairs, horns, in this case trumpets, timpani, and strings. Mozart uses only one flute in the “Jupiter” Symphony because 18th century flutes had a tendency not to blend well in ensembles.

The change in ensemble from Symphony No. 1 to No. 41 reflects a change in technology made possible by general shifts within society during the 24-year gap between the two works. We might better understand this transformation by thinking of it as being analogous to changes in computing technology over the last 24 years.

Mozart uses both technologies to their highest potential, but the biggest difference between the two works is the impact made by the experience of living. Symphony No. 1 speaks with the optimism and blatant force of a boy who has discovered a freakish and seemingly unlimited music talent. “Jupiter” speaks with a voice seasoned by disappointments, disillusions, and even of failures.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 –1791)
Symphony No. 23 K. 181/162b
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, and strings.
Completed: May 19, 1773 in Salzburg
Most Recent Performance by GBS: January 27, 2001

This is one of the last works that Mozart wrote in his birth house at 9 Getreidegasse in Salzburg. The family was planning a trip to Vienna that summer in search of work for Wolfgang. They returned to Salzburg in the fall and moved into a larger house, in which Leopold ran a music shop on the other side of the Salzach River.

In preparation for the trip to Vienna, Mozart wrote several pieces that would show his potential. To listen to this symphony is to be given a chance to peek into the compositional portfolio of a young composer who was looking for work; this work a sonic resumé. Translated from sound into language it might look like this:

Objective: To obtain employment in Vienna with strong career potential.

• Prior work experience in Italy: This brief symphony is cast in the form of a three-section Italian opera overture with sharply contrasted music played without break.

• Strong communication and organizational skills: The first movement is full of energy and juxtapositions. You will hear abrupt contrasts between loud and quiet, high register and low registers, major and minor inflections. The music follows a sophisticated narrative unfolding. It reveals strength in being articulate.

• Introduced new products: The central movement is a lyrical movement that features an extended oboe solo. The oboe being used in the role of a lyrical operatic soloist is a new element in Mozart’s symphonic style

• Managed cross-functional teams: The finale introduces rustic music into the formal environment of the symphony. He does this by finding ways to blend popular and courtly gestures, changing the way each of them functions. The music proceeds in an orderly succession of four stanzas each of which begins in the rustic style.

Based on this symphonic resume, would you hire this person? The response from Vienna: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Violin Concerto No. 5 K.219
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings.
Completed: 1775 in Salzburg
Most Recent Performance by GBS: October 16, 2010

Having just returned from Munich where he wrote his first six piano sonatas, Mozart settled back into life in Salzburg by composing his opera Il rè pastore, several Masses, and the five violin concertos.

Listen for the entrance of the solo violin in the first movement. After an introduction for orchestra alone during which several themes and gestures are offered, time seems to slow and almost to stop. The tempo changes and the soloist enters with music which speaks of ecstasy and a gentle and elegant flowing motion.

In a sudden awakening the music snaps back into focus and goes about the standard concerto game, with several new ideas and figurations, introduced by the soloist, separated by music first heard in the orchestral introduction. The soloist gets a short break from playing at the end of the exposition.

Like each of the five violin concertos by Mozart, the development section can be identified by an abrupt shift to minor. The harmony pivots instantly into minor as the development begins, and the soloist likewise needs to be able to shift, also transitioning from playfulness into music that is sorrowful and filled with operatic inflections.

With a few flourishes the music returns to playfulness.

Quick shifting between emotional states is one of the hallmarks of the classical style, but does this particular shift have a larger meaning? Is the cheerful music that follows this passage the forced cheerfulness of an entertainer? Are we meant to hear with a new perspective after the passionate exclamations of the development?

The second movement Adagio is a study in poise and tranquility. It opens with an unusual diatonic figure set with simple harmonies that will be repeated throughout the movement like a mantra. After the orchestral introduction the soloist will play ideas that float breathlessly. Follow the sequence of these ideas carefully as this whole passage returns to frame the close of the movement. The centerpiece is another unexpected voyage into minor keys, more meditative than in the first movement.

The third movement is presented as a series of dances in a schematic rondo form where the opening dance returns three times in orderly fashion. Then the surprise for which this violin concerto is famous: its sudden and surprising imitation of Janissary music, which was a cultural memory of the Viennese that went back to the time when Turkish forces almost reached the city walls in 1683.

The Janissary passage that was inserted into this finale was developed from ballet music that Mozart had written two years earlier called Le gelosie del seraglio (Jealosies of the Harem) K 135a. Originally this music had been performed in between two acts of his opera Lucio Silla when it was first played in Milan. The storm music was written especially for this concerto.

Symphony No. 1 K. 16
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings.
Completed: August-September 1764
Most Recent Performance by GBS: This is the first performance by our orchestra

It was at the house of the good Dr. Randal at 180 Ebury Street in Chelsea that Leopold Mozart took refuge during an illness that had life-threatening implications, having come upon him in a weakened state a little more than a year into the 3-year performing expedition with his family that has become known as the “Great Western Tour” (June 1763 – November 1766).

During the 51 days that the family spent with the Randals, the 8-year-old Wolfgang had the time to begin trying extended works, and completed his first two symphonies. “Remind me,” said Mozart to his sister Nannerl, “to give the horns plenty of good music.”

Leopold wrote to his landlord, Lorenz Hagenauer, in Salzburg to tell him of a performance of this symphony in London on February 21, 1965, and complained that he himself had to copy the score and created parts for the performance to avoid paying one shilling per sheet.

Wolfgang opened this symphony with an iconic figure: is a three-measure phrase set in octaves and punctuated by silence. It is a memorable gesture that immediately carved out a space in this world. Sudden quiet: two balanced phrases of classical suspensions pushed by hammer strokes in the bass that spring from a rest at the opening of each measure rather than at the end (as it was in the iconic fanfare).

Mozart repeats both the 3-measure fanfare and the two balanced phrases of suspensions before moving into a classical transition over a pulsing E-flat pedal in the bass. When the bass shifts we are in the key of B-flat major.

There is a cluster of themes in the dominant, an introductory gesture in falling, staccato scales, an active dance figure, and rising scales over tremolos in the violins. A clockwork cadence brings the first-half of the form to a close.

The second half of the work announces the 3-measure fanfare in B-flat, but when the opening sequence is repeated the music shifts into C minor. It seems like development, but this music will never reappear. The remainder of the events that we heard in the first half of the work are stated again, resolved into the fresh sounding key of E-flat major. This is a movement that stands on the very intersection between binary form and sonata structure.

The second movement Andante obsesses almost exclusively on a single texture with triplet repeated notes in the upper strings and a five-note figure in lower strings. Urgency is expressed through phrase lengths that are uneven—the first half of the movement being a 6-measure phrase followed by a 7-measure phrase and closing with a 9-measure phrase. If you listen carefully to the 1st oboe during the second phrase you will hear the notes [C, D, F, E] each sustained as a whole-note in cantus-firmus style. These same four pitches dominate the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony.” Coincidence?

The third movement is a festive rondo where the returning material sounds like a variation of the gesture that opened the first movement. Four-note descending patterns, balanced later in the movement by 4-note ascending patterns comprise much of the material in the rondo [B] sections.

Symphony No. 41 K. 551
Instrumentation: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Completed: August 10, 1788 in Vienna
Most Recent Performance by GBS: March 4, 2006

If you remember one piece from your music appreciation class it is likely to be the “Jupiter Symphony,” which is one of the most analyzed works in the repertoire. Generations of musicians have been drawn to the prism-like patterns in this music, which seems able to move at will through authentic human emotions.

The nickname “Jupiter” did not come from Mozart himself, but most likely from Johann Peter Salomon, who is known to most musicians as the person who commissioned the twelve “London Symphonies” written by Haydn. Invoking the Olympian conception and scale of the work, the nickname became commonplace even in the early 19th century.

The “Jupiter” Symphony was composed during the seventeen days between July 25 and August 10 during 1788. It was composed in a set that also included the famous G minor symphony and Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major. Scholars believe that the three symphonies were written for the occasion of a performance in a new local casino.

C major was a key often associated with celebrations, and the “Jupiter” opens with a movement where celebratory marches alternate with quieter passages of entertainment, like the experience of walking through a fairground during carnival. The structure of the movement, with its false recapitulation and other unexpected harmonic deflections, speaks with the voice of a magician.

All is good. Well, maybe not. Listen for the moment, set off by an unexpected silence, when a loud C-minor chord appears. The startling sound is propelled by the timpani, as if Gustav Mahler had suddenly added a few measures to the score. Just as quickly the music shifts back to major and continues in celebration. But did we just glimpse the face behind the mask?

Moments later, another silence. Mozart introduces a new theme in opera buffo style – a self-quotation from an aria that Mozart had recently written called “Un bacio di mano” (K.581). “You are a little naive my beloved Don Pompeo,” sings the mature Monsieur Girò in the aria, “you need to figure out the ways of the world.”

The aria that Mozart quoted was written to be included in someone else’s opera. The aria was written to be included in “Le gelosie fortunate (Fortunate Jealousy)” by Pasquale Anfossi (1727-1797). Was Mozart addressing himself through this quotation? Though the tune is unmistakably cheery, perhaps the energy behind it was broken: Mozart picks up this tune again in the development section, where he eventually focuses on one fragment broken from the tune, pushing it through a maze of tonalities.

The second movement Andante Cantabile confronts the accelerated rate of speed of modern communication. Mozart opens with muted strings; a color that is subdued. He sings of innocence but is interrupted by loud chords and faster figuration. This movement further explores the outbursts of minor music from the first movement, and the unsettled quality of presentation lingers in the mind long after the music continues into major.

The Menuetto is a dance that shows how far the chromatic scale can lean before falling into place. The trio repeats a common progression of closing—over and over again. It says goodbye without actually leaving.

The infamous finale is built from a collection of themes that work like a crossword puzzle. Each theme is wonderful when heard alone, and as they combine they form new meanings. As each new idea appears, mark it in your mind. See if you can hear them as they return and begin to combine. During the final minutes of the movement five of the themes will combine and overlap several times, with each theme appearing at least once in each of the 5-voices into which the music will be divided.

(Dull) or (Don) Giovanni; (Old) or (New) School. Review of the Met Live in HD

The Michael Grandage production of Don Giovanni, broadcast today into cinemas by the Met Live in HD, seemed designed to draw battle lines. Does an opera require anything more than the very best ensemble cast?

The singers were all amazing. I can't imagine debate about that fact. Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, and Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina were each able to present detailed musical performances and have a charismatic presence on the unfolding action. Ramón Vargas made Don Ottavio the kind of character with whom you would love to have a cup of coffee. Mariusz Kwiecien, who seemed in perfect health, as Don Giovanni and Luca Pisaroni as Leporello had strong chemistry, and even looked enough alike that the disguise scene seemed inevitable. More importantly Don Giovanni and Leporello were like separate aspects of the same consciousness. This cast has the potential to become a 21st century classic.

So what was the problem?

The first act seemed long. In Don Giovanni long means wrong.

A gradual awareness settled in that the set was dull and motionless. I expected to enjoy the lack of dazzle as a refreshing alternative to projection hangovers. But in fact, detail within the set drew attention to itself and away from the singers. We kept waiting for the structures onstage to be used and developed. It seemed as if the cast carried the weight of heavy shudders on their own shoulders.

The fight was on. Perfect music and great vocal and acting performance against the production.

The second act of Don Giovanni requires sudden shifts into a supernatural world, and Grandage was successful with these transitions. The final scene thrilled with arcs of fire. Kwiecien sang like a rockstar and was pulled underneath the stage with wonderful machinery. But there was not enough kinetic energy to support "Il mio tesoro" and "Mi tradi," and so stasis found its way into the second act also.

I liked the classical take on the costumes, gestures, and basic concept. I get that Peter Sellars had the day off. I just wish that the end result was the one that Grandage seemed to intend.

Connecticut Concert Opera brings Faust to West Hartford

Currently in its 20th season, Connecticut Concert Opera presented a semi-staged production of Gounod’s Faust at the Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford. For all its entertaining waltzes and endlessly memorable tunes this opera is a significant challenge. For one thing it is extremely long, even with standard cuts, and it requires singers who have endurance, concentration, and the ability to shift musical styles convincingly.

Artistic Director and Conductor Doris Lang Kosloff helped shape the content by grouping the opera into two “Acts,” with one central intermission. The first “Act” grouped the scene with Faust in his study, the Kermesse fair, and the Garden scene, the second collection grouped the traditional acts IV and V. Because there were no complicated set changes Kosloff was able to pull this off by simply leaning on tempos and moving action forward. She cut Marguerite’s spinning song but performed the church scene before the death of Valentin, as notated by Gounod but often performed in reverse order. She cut Walpurgis Night, which is standard, and trimmed back “Vin ou Bière,” but most music lovers would not have been able to detect any other cuts. This was a full-blooded Faust, and it transcended the sum of its details.

Soprano Jacqueline Quirk sang Marguerite mixed sweet and dark colors during the first “Act” but unleashed significant dramatic power after intermission. This vocal duality is unusual and gave us strong insight into her character (both Quirk’s and Marguerite’s). The first glimpse of this power was given during the Jewel Song—just after the extended trill when Quirk sang the scale that rises up to G-sharp. She accented the top with such intensity I actually saw several people in the audience flinch—both times! She could also sing gently with wonderfully floating lyricism. During the reminiscences of the prison scene, when Marguerite recalled the first time she met Faust, Quirk’s sound danced quietly with the orchestra in D major. She left the stage at the end of the evening to follow a stairway to heaven projected onto the back wall.

The props were simple, as appropriate in concert opera, but Quirk sang The King of Thule while seated at a most beautiful spinning wheel which I understand was an authentic early 19th century artifact from the Wood Memorial Library and Museum.

Tenor Michael-Paul Krubitzer improved throughout the evening as his voice warmed and opened. He seemed uncomfortable in his hooded headgear during the bargaining scene with Méphistophélès that opened the opera. At any rate the hood forced him to lift his head more than necessary and his sound was much better after his “youthful” transformation. Krubitzer developed fabulous presence with Quirk and their prison scene was memorable.

Graham Fandrei sang a confident Valentin. His ”O Sainte Medaille” was lush and tender. Mezzo soprano Sondra Kelly pleased with Martha. She also was able to sing the ensembles without becoming lost in the mix, which is no easy task in this opera.

I liked Erica Jeski as Siébel. Jeski had homefield advantage (on an evening when homefield won the World Series) because she was raised in West Hartford and is currently a student at the Hartt School. Jeski was able to project a very credible C major personality in Faites-lui mes aveux. She is talented and has significant potential.

But the evening belonged to Kirk Eichelberger who played Méphistophélès. Eichelberger’s resonant voice filled the hall with every sound. He was placed within the orchestra during his entrance to both “acts” and so his sound seemed to emerge from the instruments themselves. Eichelberger went to devil school. He was witty at all the right times, moved in all the right ways, and was just scary enough at all the right times. He is an amazing musician.

I was so persuaded by Eichelberger that as I left the Hoffman Auditorium I was actually noticeably younger. I am still not completely sure what that will cost me. I’ll worry about that later.

Connecticut Concert Opera will present Faust again at 2:00 on Sunday, October 30 at the Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph College. For additional information click here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pablo Heras-Casado in the Digital Concert Hall; Fabulous Berio, but Mendelssohn?

Pablo Heras-Casado led a concert of extremes in his Digital Concert Hall debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He positioned extremely familiar works by Mendelssohn (the Hebrides Overture, and the Symphony No. 3) to begin and end the event, and he placed two infrequently heard pieces (Karol Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4, and Berio's Quatre dédicaces) just before and after intermission.

Like a good hard candy, it was the center which was most pleasantly surprising. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined the orchestra as soloist in the Szymanowski, which, though it could be mistaken for a piano concerto, is actually numbered among Szymanowski's symphonies, and is nicknamed »Symphonie concertante.«

Hamelin approached the work in a chamber style and blended into the orchestra during many passages. This conception made the most concerto-like elements, like the ringing figuration of the first movement cadenza, or the brief trilled cadenza of the andante molto sostenuto, seem freshly improvised. Hamlin was also soulful in the dancing central passage of the third movement where he was able to create the isolated vortex of someone who dances to both remember and forget.

The Mazurka that he announced from the stage as his encore was actually the Mazurka Op. 50 No. 6 and is recorded on the disc of complete Mazurka's by Szymanowski that Hamelin recorded for Hyperion.

After intermission Heras-Casado treated us to the Quatre dédicaces for orchestra by Luciano Berio. The Berliner Philharmoniker is exploring a series of works by Berio this season, and this performance of these four brief, festive pieces was impressive. Heras-Casado played the four movements in the Boulez ordering.

The Fanfara was given in a stately tempo, with incredible detail in the trumpet playing. Heras-Casado extended the final tone played by the clarinets which gave the movement a dramatic close. I loved the quivering richness of texture in the Entrada, and Festum was played as a celebration of simultaneous ideas. This performance of the final movement, Encore, could easily become required material for the study of virtuoso orchestral balances.

The Mendelssohn was ok. Hebrides had a few memorable moments, and the last three movements of the third symphony were often quite good. Heras-Casado took too much time between the first and second, and the second and third movements, allowing energy to dissipate at those important junctions. The first movement missed the mark. Heras-Casado could not get the orchestra to play quietly. Listen for instance, to the opening of the development, marked sempre pianissimo. It is already quite loud, then during the crescendo it reaches maximum volume well in advance of the fortissimo marking. The only place the orchestra played quietly was the repeat of the exposition, and arguably at the opening of the recap. The result was that the first movement sounded thick and many great subtleties within the movement, like that lovely clarinet line that shadows the opening violin tune one octave lower (at the beginning of the first theme group) was completely covered.

The LA Philharmonic bested this performance in both works by Mendelssohn during their LA Phil Live in HD performance on October 9, that I reviewed on this blog.

The inner and outer portions of the event didn't harmonize well as a program either. Both works by Mendelssohn came across unfairly as a programming afterthought. It might have worked to open with Berio followed by Szymanowski with Mendelssohn on the second half. But the messaging with Mendelssohn first and last seemed all wrong.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Anna Bolena in Sorrow and Rage; A Review of Met Live in HD

photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Anna Bolena is a study in contrasts. The music exposes clear distinctions between public and private faces, between fantasy and longing to recapture a sweetly imagined past and affairs, and intrigues and deceptions.

The 2011-2012 season of Live in HD transmissions from the Met opened with an old-school production of Anna Bolena centered around Anna Netrebko. This production by David McVicar added to the contrasts in the music itself. McVicar contrasted a traditional and simple presentation of characters onstage with sophisticated transitions between scenes involving quickly programmed, and elegantly conceived mechanicals.

While the old-school blocking of characters allowed us to focus on the beauty of the bel canto production of this excellent cast, there were times, especially early on, where the production became visually sleepy.

Conductor Marco Armiliato was criticized by Anthony Tommasini for "routine conducting" during the season opening concert on September 26. Tommasini felt that Armiliato needed to better "instill...intensity into the music." I heard that performance on MetRadio and felt it was fair criticism. This performance was noticeably different. Armiliato kept the music leaning forward and got a much edgier sound from the orchestra.

This cast ensemble proved that this opera is more than a diva machine. Tamara Mumford, as Mark Smeaton, was a pleasant surprise, and took the character through a sensational arc. Her understanding of the locket aria was centered on a contrast of its own--between the character Smeaton's ability to live in fantasy and his slowly dawning realization that he is outside of the opera listening in. Smeaton's sudden leap back into the opera, through the gory representation of his tortured confession served to remind us that brutal force was always lurking just below the surface throughout this opera.

Netrebko saturated Anna Bolena in sorrow and rage. The amazing close-ups that were possible through the Live in HD cameras created a surrealistic force in her portrayal. Though she absolved the King and his new bride before being led to her own execution, the force and intensity that Netrebko unleashed into the music made any forgiveness chilling.   

Sunday, October 9, 2011

LAPhil Live in HD Review: Mendelssohn "Like a Dark and Cold Wind"

The LAPhil Live in HD season returned to cinemas with a program of frequently played works by Mendelssohn. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been all over the news over the past week, being named "Musician of the Year" by Gramophone Magazine and with the announcement of two new music education with links to our side of the country.

This production looked markedly different from last season. There were many shots from within the orchestra; as if we were sitting in the string section, and many more close-ups of players. There was no host, and a host was not missed. The rehearsal footage alone made the event worth attending--Dudamel expressed fabulous insights into the Scottish symphony in particular.

The event opened with a dark and moody performance of the Hebrides Overture. Dudamel worked on the slower side and let lines surge and build with great skill. Given this context the famous clarinet statement of the second theme group in B major (with the editorial marking "tranquillo assai") seemed overly articulated and was played with a dotted 8th and 16th at the end of its first measure. Was this decision based on one of the new editions of the work? Still the work was a gorgeous and evocative way to open the event.

Dutch virtuoso Janine Jansen joined the orchestra as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Mark Swed raved about her playing on Thursday evening. This particular performance did not come into the cinema as effectively as the performance he described. Jansen never seemed fully comfortable during the first movement and seemed not to explore the stillness and silences of the cadenza that she described in the preconcert interview footage. There were lovely chamber-like moments in the second movement where she brought out a vulnerable quality in the music, and the finale was fabulous from start to stop. For her encore she played the sarabande from Bach's second partita in D minor.

After intermission we heard significant insights from Dudamel and great rehearsal footage. "Its like a cold and dark [wind]," said Dudamel of the opening gesture of the symphony. "The structure is very classical," he said of the symphony in general, "but with a nostalgic and Romantic soul."

Laughter erupted several times in the orchestra as he described the image of a queen, "who goes to the gym" taking part in the massive victory celebration at the end of the finale. And Dudamel kept looking for edges that would project a sense of warfare.

In my cinema "Real Steel" was playing next door. Some of that fighting spilled into our space, but I swear that Dudamel was so much in command that I could be persuaded he had willed it to be so. Dudamel's vision of the piece worked. The explosive sound as the finale opened was memorable, and textures throughout were rich and well-balanced. It was a performance that was detailed and expressive.

The next LAPhil Live in HD will be Mahler 8 in February...but that seems too far away. I would have loved at least one other event between now and then.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Magical Transitions and the Wisdom of Cutting Away the Superfluous in the Digital Concert Hall

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider mentioned "the wisdom of cutting away the superfluous" during his intermission interview with Berliner Philharmoniker violist Amihai Grosz in a concert broadcast through the Digital Concert Hall.

He was referring to a saying attributed to Michelangelo, but that particular wisdom was the single most striking aspect of his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Unlike many soloists who have matched wits with this famous concerto, Znaider chose an understated almost conversational framework, choosing to "cut away" the idea that every note in the work must be played molto espressivo. This interpretation was refreshing, and it gave him more room to lift the slowly arcing intensity curves that shape the work. When the time came for passionate outbursts the sound was welcome.

Znaider delivered this performance on the 18th century Guarneri “del Gesu” that Fritz Kreisler played as his primary instrument from 1904-1919. The instrument had an amazingly rich and varied low register and seems to sing with a choir of musical ghosts.

Bernard Haitink was the scheduled conductor, but he needed to cancel due to illness, so the young Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha got the call. Valcuha projected confidence and led the orchestra with cerebral elegance throughout the evening.

Valcuha did have trouble holding the Philharmoniker back in several moments of the work, like the opening of the third movement, where the dynamic level was too loud and the sound was too heavy. But Valcuha and Znaider also chose to "cut away" the sense of parody in the finale that many interpretations seek. They played the music with a soulful and sexy dance energy and when the the great dark force that closes the movement swept through it seemed a culmination rather than a contradiction.

Valcuha was able to shift around the program that Haitink had planned, which included the Eroica Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 and Weber's Euryanthe Overture were tasty choices, and seemed much more interesting than the previously scheduled fare.

It became an evening of magical transitions.

The Euryanthe Overture opened its development with whispered music for 8 muted solo violins in colors that shifted with smoky edges through several minor keys. Somehow this passage seemed to speak directly to the retransition in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky symphony where an elemental and sparse pattern of syncopated intervals emerged from an otherwise logical development section.

The finale of the Tchaikovsky first symphony has an interpretive challenge. The introduction is long...and it returns at the end of the movement. But Valcuha led us perfectly from this return through another magical transition: rising chromatic lines that slowly pulled the music away, and pointed it with great skill toward the allegro vivo sprint that ended the work in breathless euphoria.

It was a program of works that harmonized. Listen again to the opening of the Sibelius concerto, and then the opening of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. Right?

Valcuha was not only confident onstage, through some clever concert programming he started his success even before he arrived. That was a magical transition in its own right.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mahler 1 in the Digital Concert Hall; Zubin Mehta and a Celebration of Intensities

Zubin Mehta led the Berliner Philharmoniker, on the 50th anniversary of the year of his debut as guest conductor with the orchestra, in a stunning program that was transmitted live over the Digital Concert Hall.

The event began with the Orchestermusik, Op. 9 written in 1948 by Gottfried von Einem (1918-1996). This was an attractive work punctuated by military gestures, but driven by long lines that were draped on inventive and engaging textures. It was music that spoke with an identifiable voice and made me eager to explore more of von Einem's music.
Next, cellist Johannes Moser joined the orchestra as soloist in the Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann. Moser is a cellist with ideas, and this event was the perfect platform for him to showcase the electrifying technical command and also the fluency of his musical thinking.

Moser embraced the rich fragments of style and intention that comprise the Schumann concerto. While many soloists try to join these contrasts, Moser let them collide and the results were impressive. It was in the development of the first movement that we were first able to hear the impact of this strategy. The Berliner Philharmoniker edged their gestures and kept the sound moving like a machine. Moser was able to use his lines to contrast and resist, pushing against and later becoming attracted by that very different sound. The movement became about poetic resistance to mechanization.

When the parallelism in the recapitulation was broken to move toward the second movement, one could not help but to hear the falling 5th played by Moser as a voiced invocation to Clara herself. It was easy to imagine the poet seeking haven through her spirit. Moser delighted in the intricacies of the third movement and seemed to amplify its rock & roll through the force of his own charisma.

Well received by the audience, Moser played a well chosen encore. He played the sarabande from the first Bach cello suite. This meditative dance was the perfect resolution for the concerto, as the spirit of Bach so often both followed and haunted Schumann.   

After intermission we heard Mahler's Symphony No. 1 performed with the Blumine movement that was discarded by Mahler during the process that bridged the composition of the work and led to its final published format. In fact, Mahler himself conducted this symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker at around the time that he first conceived of the work as a symphony instead of a symphonic poem. After Mahler's death the "Blumine" movement was lost, and it was not rediscovered until 1966. The movement was reintroduced to the 20th century just down the street from me, by the New Haven Symphony, in the Spring of 1968.

Mehta performed the work with the Blumine movement reattached. It was wonderful to hear the work this way, and I actually prefer it to the version we normally hear.

In the finale of the symphony there was a critical passage where a quotation from the introduction of the first movement falls from D-flat down to C and opens on a vista of quotations over a long C pedal. The second theme group from the Blumine movement was quoted there, as were many other moments in the symphony. With the Blumine intact it made everything seem plugged in again without loose ends.

Mehta was in great form. He is a master of economy, but when he moves the entire orchestra shines. The recapturing of D major as the work closed was a powerful moment, writ large over the course of more than an hour through a summation of details, a celebration of intensities.
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