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Vienna Beach

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/09/2001 -  
Andre Previn: Diversions
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Violin Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 4

Gil Shaham (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Andre Previn (conductor)

It is arguable that the most important figure in fin-de-siecle musical Austria was not Mahler but rather Julius Korngold, universally feared but respected critic for the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, still thriving since its establishment by Robert Schumann. In his acerbic reviews and feuilletons, Korngold shaped the listening habits of several generations and greatly influenced the choice of repertoire that still dominates today. Herr Doktor was blessed with a remarkable prodigy for a son and “little Korngold” became a fixture in the concert halls and soirees that mattered in this hotbed of twentieth century music. It would have seemed inconceivable to a soothsayer in those times to think that not only the boy genius but many other members of the Viennese inner circle would end their days in, of all places, Hollywood, California, grinding out film scores for the insatiable dream factory and yet, thanks to Adolf Hitler, this is exactly what occurred. The photos of Arnold Schoenberg in his tennis outfit speak volumes about the expatriate community, which not only included such musical lights as Heifetz and Stravinsky, but also basked in the warm glow of the genius of Thomas Mann.

Erich Wolfgang turned himself into a veritable cottage industry, writing dozens of scores for all sorts of movies and following in his father’s footsteps as a shaper of musical convention (in fact, the anti-Mahler riposte that his symphonies sound like movie scores is directly attributable to Korngold’s hold on the cinematic imagination). Always, like Weill, walking the tightrope wire of taste, he tried to imbue his California output with as much depth as possible and fashioned a totally “classical” concerto for cello from the material composed for the Bette Davis-Claude Rains tearjerker Deception. After Heifetz rejected a concerto from friend and neighbor Schoenberg, he turned to Korngold, who had recently begun to construct something just a little more acceptable to popular taste. The resulting piece is an amalgam of movie marvels from such celluloid masterpieces as Another Dawn, Juarez, The Prince and the Pauper and Anthony Adverse (a contemporary critic called it “more korn than gold”). In an interesting confluence of personalities and styles, Andre Previn, another Hollywood type, unfortunately better known as Woody Allen’s father-in-law than as a serious composer and conductor, presented this concerto as the centerpiece of his concert with the New York Philharmonic this evening.

Mr. Previn’s composition was the perfect curtain raiser for the event. Itself breezily reminiscent of movie music, this contemporary tone poem reminded of those more carefree moments in Bernard Herrmann, scenes of driving up the Coast Highway foremost in the mind. Perhaps only a kilometer from Eurotrash, the work moved along nicely, aided somewhat by extremely tight wind playing notable for the absence of each and every first chair player from the orchestra. In fact, there were virtually no principals in the ensemble for the first half of the program, creating an opportunity for others to shine. I was particularly struck by the rich and warm tone of associate principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni.

After the sterile experience of hearing the Emerson String Quartet last evening, I was thrilled to bathe in the huge washes of warm sound emanating from the fiddle of Gil Shaham. His is an exceptionally large and beautiful sound and he manipulates it splendidly. He unashamedly went for that big Hollywood tone in the Korngold and, after all, you can’t have any compunctions if you are going to put over this piece with the proper amount of chutzpah (just like the trumpet in Weill’s Second Symphony is meant to invoke the voice of Lotte Lenya, the violin here is eerily reminiscent of Ethel Merman). Fully invested from the first, Shaham dazzled with both his wizardry and his larger than life timbre with dangerously high cholesterol levels of vibrato which I eagerly, if perhaps a little guiltily, consumed. This orchestra plays well for Previn and so was a satisfying match for the soloist, the duet between him and the evening’s concertmistress Sheryl Staples not to be missed.

Considering all of the intrigues and infighting surrounding the recent succession to the podium of the Philharmonic, it was a treat tonight to just sit back and let them make music. Maestro Previn led a broadly phrased version of the Beethoven and even coaxed a modicum of lushness from his string section. Throughout the rhythms were steady and delightfully upbeat. I found myself discretely tapping my finger in the air and noticed that, for a change, I was thoroughly enjoying the music, almost more the feel of a summer band concert. In fact, Previn let so much sun into the performance that it could have passed for the 4th Symphony of Mendelssohn rather than Beethoven. The total experience was pleasurable and, for once at least, a visit to the Philharmonic was indeed a day at the beach.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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