The youngsters at play
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Gabriela Lena Frank: Elegía Andina
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (cadenzas by Beethoven)
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor “Scottish”, opus 56
Richard Goode (piano)
New York String Orchestra, Jaime Laredo (conductor)
J. Laredo (© Pete Checchia)
Attending some concerts invariably brings a feeling of nostalgia. That is always the case with the annual Christmas-time performances by the New York String Orchestra. I witnessed the first concert of this ensemble 48 years ago on Christmas Eve. A lot has changed since then, but what thankfully remained is the spirit of the group, now lead by the esteemed violinist-conductor Jaime Laredo. Would anyone today believe that at first those Christmas Eve programs started at midnight? It permitted even those who celebrate Christmas to spend the first part of the evening with the family and later to join the young musicians at their musical festivities. In later years, as we know, there has appeared among a certain segment of the American population a “desire” to discourage our citizenry from even uttering the words “Merry Christmas”... Well, back in 1969, we were all younger and the added attraction was to have tons of friends in the orchestra to root for them. At the concert I attended on December 28, I saw on stage “kids” whose parents most likely were not even born when the NYSO was in its first season. A sobering thought.
Other changes: the group, conceived by music manager Frank Salomon - still very much alive and active as ever! - originally featured only strings and during the first seasons their conductor, Alexander “Sasha” Schneider, in his programs featured mostly music from the baroque era. Both Schneider, hailing from the legendary Budapest Quartet, and Jaime Laredo, the present leader of the NYSO, started as violinists and came to conducting later in their lives. What they both share is incredible musicianship and an infectious passion for music-making. It is no secret that regardless of how proficient Schneider was as a conductor - and numerous recordings, such as the Mozart piano concertos done with the great Rudolf Serkin, attest to that fact - Laredo is simply a superb orchestra builder and an often astonishingly wonderful maestro. I still remember one of those Christmas concerts some years ago, when he and his young charges offered Beethoven Symphony No. 5, which must have been one of the most compelling versions I have ever heard live. With kids aged between 16 and 23!
NYSO is, for those who still don’t know, a 10-day long seminar during which the youngsters chosen from the best music schools across the nation - and recently also from out of the USA - form the orchestra and in addition study chamber music with the most prominent musicians around, many of whom were former participants of that winter program. In merely ten days, with the help of some renowned string and wind players, Laredo is able to create an ensemble that sounds not only as good as a professional orchestra, but one that would make more than one of the well-known orchestras proud to be able to play as well. It is also not a secret that many of “those kids”, as I like to call them, in time become first desk players of the most famous orchestras in the world. But it generally starts right here in New York on the stage of Carnegie Hall and under the baton of Maestro Laredo. The program, the second of two (the first was devoted entirely to music by Mozart) featured (typical for such events) a modern work - or as my friend Jay Nordlinger likes to call it, the OOCP, which stands for Obligatory Opening Contemporary Piece - this time by Gabriela Lena Frank, followed by two well-known masterpieces: the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3. The soloist was the esteemed and now beloved American pianist Richard Goode, whose past activities included the artistic directorship of the famed Marlboro Festival, another great place where older, more experienced and famous masters work hand-in-hand with younger musicians. That’s where our conductor also commenced his career, making in his youth recordings with the legendary Rudolf Serkin.
Laredo and Goode approached the Concerto with the requisite energy and urgency. It is one of the most dramatic piano concertos of Mozart and its syncopated opening has an ominous, turbulent character. Laredo possesses a rare skill to maintain the vigor and forward motion of the music and rarely lets it sag or lose momentum. His and Goode’s was an unquestionably Mozart as seen through the eyes of Beethoven, who was one of its ardent performers and authored two of the most famous cadenzas for this concerto. Mr. Goode used both of them and played them in an improvisatory, dramatic manner. In the more lyrical moments of the opening Allegro, and especially in the outer parts of Romanze, our pianist showed also a beautiful touch and produced a tender vocal line. One has to also offer praise for Mr. Goode’s faultless executions of the score and for the overall freshness, brilliance and liveliness of his performance. Unlike his previously mentioned old master Serkin, who in his earlier years was quite often brutal in his approach to this score, Goode’s way with this score was as energetic but always controlled, always elegant. In recent decades, some younger Mozart interpreters allow themselves to embellish Mozart’s melodic line, especially in the second movement, but in that respect Mr. Goode was rather conservative and only rarely “beautified” the composer’s original, clearly believing that what Mozart left us is quite sufficient. One must mention the lovely contribution of the wind section and their interplay with the piano: the solos of the oboe and flute were quite exceptional, especially in view of fact that these were not the members of the Vienna Philharmonic but conservatory students. As I have already mentioned, with the available talent like that, the major American orchestras need not worry about future replacement of their prize first desk players.
The Mendelssohn “Scottish” Symphony received a marvelous, nuanced yet still virtuosic performance that interpretatively could stand next to ones recorded by major ensembles. Laredo displayed the same attitude I so much admire, which is conducting with one long phrase in mind and never losing the direction of the melodic line. There were perhaps a few some drastic “gear changes” in the first movement Allegro un poco agitato, but it all fit into the character of the music. Interestingly, the composer demands that this nearly forty minute long score be played almost continuously; it made me wonder if Mendelssohn was already acquainted with the scores of Schubert fantasias - for piano solo, for piano and violin, and for piano four-hands - that feature the same formal design, although unlike the Scottish Symphony they are written in one seamless whole. The composer admitted being smitten with Scotland and found an inspiration in its countryside, literature and history. The most “scottish” sounding patterns, the dotted dancing rhythm, can be found in the last movement Allegro vivacissimo, but then again, it has also been characterized by some commentators as Italianate. Formally, in that movement, the seemingly carefree character gradually gives to more dramatic transition (some see in this movement a picture of the battle, hear calls to arms and wailing of the wounded; maybe so...) which leads to uplifting re-affirmation in the coda. Again, similar to his own Piano Trio in C minor, Mendelssohn brings out the Ave Maria chorale, apparently coming from his own earlier work. Laredo was able to coax a beautiful, warm burnished sound from the string section, and there was little to complain about the demands that the winds face in that work: there were admirable solos of clarinets and oboes, the French horns were mostly reliable and everything was suffused with the palatable joy of music making. Yes, by now it almost sounds like a cliché but it is true that often student performances, especially under the guidance of someone as beloved as Maestro Laredo, bring a different kind of the enthusiasm among the players, who may perhaps not be professionally as experienced as the members of top notch ensembles, but handsomely compensate with their engaged playing.
The concert opened with Andean Elegy composed in 2000 by Ms. Frank. The composer, in her own short description of this 11 minute long work, draws on the Peruvian part of her heritage, which includes also Chinese and Jewish-Latvian influences, not detectable in this particular work. Here the prominent and significant elements are the instruments of the percussion section that - to these ears at least - imitate the sounds of the South American dense forest. Again, as in the other compositions presented during that memorable evening, the kids did a marvelous job tackling this quite demanding, though listener-friendly score.