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The Ex-Strav-agansa Continues

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
10/04/2018 -  & October 5, 6*, 2018
Louis Andriessen: Agamemnon (World Premiere)
Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D – Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Claude Debussy: La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques

Leila Josefowicz (Violin), Juliette Kenn de Balinhazy (Narrator)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (Musical Director/Conductor)

L. Josefowicz (© Chris Lee)

New York is going through an accidental ex-Strav-agansa these weeks. No, Igor Stravinsky doesn’t have any particular anniversaries coming up, but a pair of orchestras is still celebrating his achievements.

Two weeks ago, the new NY Phil Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, started his reign with Le Sacre du printemps. Two days ago, Michael Tilson Thomas led his own San Francisco Orchestra with the same work. Three days ago, Mr. Thomas led his orchestra with two more Stravinsky works, including the rarely played Violin Concerto played by Leonidas Kavakos. So who offered the same Concerto the same night to be played the following two nights? Well, Mr. van Zweden, this time with Leila Josefowicz as soloist.

And not to be outdone, he conducted yet another Stravinsky work, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Not perhaps as amiable as the Concerto, but Stravinsky acolytes rate it amongst his more important “middle” pieces.

Nothing, though could touch Ms. Josefowicz’s peformance of the Violin Concerto. The other evening, Mr. Kavakos gave a scintillating, polished and hip-to-cool performance. Ms Josefowicz would have none of that. Hers was not only brilliant violin playing (of course!) but she turned the work into a sophisticated comedy. Something between Congreve and Pinter.

Actually, Ms. Josefowicz and Mr. van Zweden could have been playing L’Histoire du soldat, and nobody would know the difference. She was both devil and soldier, dancer and fiddler. She held her instrument at crazy angles, she leaned into the conductor as if to embrace him–or duel with him.

To compare her delightful antics to a Stravinsky/Picasso clown is no insult, for this work superficially has a circus atmosphere. To say her fingers mastered the incredible difficulties is more less apparent.

The composer begins with the violin interval of an 11th–which the original soloist felt he could not master. (He did.) After that, Stravinsky, no violinist himself, gave the soloist his most un-fiddlish tricks, with four-string harmonics, sudden changes, jagged rhythms.

And Ms. Josefowicz–who prides herself on “performing more live composers than dead ones”– dealt with it as if it had no challenges at all. Yes, she played the slow Aria One with a 19th Century lyricism. But the rest, including the eccentric Capriccio, was fiery, commanding and, above all, a treat for the ear.

I did love Mr. Kavakos’ joy (and expertise). Ms. Josefowicz, though, tore the music apart, embracing it, playing with it like a child with a new doll.

We have no “accidental” performances of Louis Andriessen this year. Conductor van Zweden is a compatriot and colleague–and the fungible, creative, Mr. Andriessen is always colorful, inspired and a happy happenstance.

The NY Phil commissioned the composer, who came up with Agamemnon, hardly unfamiliar in opera (Gluck, Offenbach, Strauss), and is one of Homer’s most interesting full-bodied characters. Not one to admire (as Andriessen admits), but certainly fascinating.

As is the music. Beginning with the highest trumpet chords, going on to Trojan warfare, a few bars of melancholy, and then–unhappily–more bars of jazz, quasi-rock, an eclectic mix. It ended quite majestically with words spoken by Cassandra (Juliette Kenn de Balinhazy) about the fate of Mankind.

Now had Mr. Andriessen had the audacity of Richard Strauss, he might have “told” the story. Instead he admits it is not a literal story. But he tells us to “find” Achilles and Clytemnestra and others of the Greek tale. To say the least, that was difficult. And he really was musically explaining the character colloquies, perhaps even the tragedy.

That, though, was impossible to discern. Mr. Andriessen did put forth a mighty musical epic. I only wish he had been forced to go to the Straussian low-level and told us more. Mr. van Zweden conducted it with majesty and regality, yet in trying to recognize the characters, we lost sight of the amorphous libretto.

The second half brought more Stravinsky. Alan Gilbert had once conducted the Symphonies of Wind Instruments with a stolid beat garnering more admiration than love. Nor could Mr. van Zweden raise the work above the ritualistic, though his brass and winds played faultlessly.

That piece was written in honor of Debussy. The real Debussy came with La Mer, and Mr. van Zweden proved a wondrous leader. No, I learned nothing new about the sea or Debussy, yet that was unimportant. With such masterpieces, and an orchestra so attentive to the conductor, one heard it as simply 25 gorgeous minutes.

Harry Rolnick



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