The Colors of Sound
David Geffen Hall
01/10/2019 - & January 11*, 12, 2019
Leos Janácek/arr. Charles Mackerras: The Cunning Little Vixen Suite
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 26
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35
Simon Trpceski (piano), Frank Huang (violin)
New York Philharmonic, Jakub Hrůsa (conductor)
“After hearing Dmitri Mitropoulos play my Third Concerto I realized that I had to compose another one for myself!”
As a young lad I spent quite a bit of time at the Hartford Library where I encountered the best book about orchestration. It was written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which was fortunate because my father enjoyed listening to his music on my ancient phonograph, so there were no civil wars in my household, at least on the subject of music – to their credit, my parents put up with my rudimentary piano lessons as well. No work is more illustrative of the Russian master’s use of orchestral color than Scheherazade. It is always a feast of tonal delights and exotic rhythms and, in its own way, a precursor of both of the other offerings on this afternoon program.
The Australian conductor Charles Mackerras was an expert in Czech music and produced several groundbreaking vinyls of the operas of Janácek. He wrote a suite from the opera The Cunning Little Vixen with much of the music “cleaned up” a bit to sound more smooth, only to revise the work after realizing that the public could indeed relate to the composer’s original rough and tumble score. It was the revised work that we heard this day as Czech conductor Hrůsa, who studied under Mackerras, led a faithful performance. The playing of the orchestra was fine, rough when suggested by the score, but the arrangement itself seemed to miss the mark. For example, Bystrouska’s dream lacked the inner beauty that is its core value. The notes were there but the spirit was not.
It is difficult to believe that the Russian boy who was afraid to hit any black keys when he was first learning the piano could grow into an enfant terrible who could compose the Piano Concerto No. 3, but that is exactly the evolution of Sergei Prokofiev as both a performer and a consummate creator. Music lovers of my generation will remember when Victor Borge would pause in his comedy piano recitals, open his bench and produce the two halves of a safety belt. Whenever I hear the Prokofiev in question I remember that image. This is truly a wild ride.
This rendition started out badly. Macedonian pianist Trpceski began to play very quietly as is indicated by the composer. Trouble was that the orchestra chimed in quite loudly, drowning out the soloist for several minutes. Honestly, don’t they position someone in the audience during rehearsals to let them know that their balances are correct? Equanimity was restored ultimately, however a beginning like this one was somewhat overwhelming. For all of Mr. Trpceski’s acrobatics, this was a rather disappointing and muddy rendition.
I have waited a long time to write about Frank Huang, the concertmaster of the band. First, let me put my remarks into context by spending a moment on his predecessor Glenn Dicterow. For years he was the leader, hitting all of the notes when asked, but producing a sound that was, at the very least, anachronistic. Mr. Dicterow was from Southern California and so I began to label his type of schmaltzy phrasing as a “Hollywood sound”– a leftover from the Philharmonic of the Bernstein era. However, this tedious super-Romanticism never seemed to fit with the orchestra’s attempt to become the bearers of a more contemporary sound. So now Mr. Huang. Although I was initially disappointed that Sheryl Staples was not promoted to concertmaster, I have heard enough concerts now to evaluate the new leader as excellent and yet unobtrusive. He performed the solos in the Rimsky-Korsakov beautifully without overdoing it. It was a pleasure to listen to him.
This was a fine overall performance but it got me to thinking. Did Maestro spend most of his rehearsal time with this unfamiliar orchestra digging in to this complex and remarkably colorful piece? Just perhaps, but this may explain the sloppiness of the first half of the afternoon. Anyway, all’s well that ends well I guess. We in America are essentially deprived of many of the great symphonies to emerge from Russia. Just to mention three masters, we must include Rimsky, Glazunov and Scriabin. What a boon it would be if some forward-thinking maestro would embrace these great symphonists. Maestro Van Zweden, are you listening?