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Ms. Ott’s Perpetual Gems

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
04/04/2024 -  & April 5, 6, 2024
Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Richard Strauss: Strauss Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
Alexander Scriabin: Le Poème de l’Extase, Op.54

Alice Sara Ott (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Karina Canellakis (Conductor)

A. S. Ott/K. Canellakis (© Deutsche Grammophon/Boston Symphony)

If you want to make something clear to someone, you mustn’t forget the main point, the most important thing, and if you bring in something else as an illustration you mustn’t wander off into endless irrelevancies.
Anton Webern

I am God. I am a moment illuminating eternity...I am affirmation...I am ecstasy.
Alexander Scriabin

The momentous polarities of the year 1908 bookended this week’s NY Phil concert, led, in her debut performance by Karina Canellakis. The opening was the severely controlled, yet somehow unpredictable Six Pieces by Anton Webern. A huge orchestra almost never playing fully, never repeating a single note. Yet somehow mesmeric.

On the other end was Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, a work which, on the surface, was anarchic, infernal, with dozens of brass and winds and percussion and strings, blaring, tootling, drumming with themes that seemed unearthly, yet–somehow–were controlled.

Not controlled like Webern. But as strait jacketed violent patients in a mental hospital.

The differences, considering the same year of creation, might have predicted all the music of the 20th Century. But of course that wasn’t true. Webern and Scriabin were singular blips in history, Yin and Yang creatures who probably never knew each other.

Both were handled well by New York-born Ms. Canellakis, far better known in Europe than America. (Is she the first New Yorker to conduct the Phil? I can’t think of any other.) She took four diverse works and connected well with her orchestra, though one has heard more personal idiomatic performances of each piece.

The opening Webern could have created the usual audience-coughing, but she held their attention through all the sparse textures. While I have heard this many times, I had never read Webern’s “explanation” until these program notes. The first piece foretells “expectation of calamity”, the second the calamity. The third introduces a funeral march, and the fourth–a piece which could have been a late Romantic lamentation–is the march itself. The last two are epilogues.

Ms. Canellakis could be actually agitated in the “calamity” second movement and almost romantic in the third. But in the longest, that five‑minute long fourth movement, bells, gongs, low brass were mysterious (in a Bartókian way) but showed the conductor embracing the changes of color.

The ending Scriabin was, as stated above, the apotheosis of extravagance, the creation of a megalomaniac pianist, prophet (with no followers) mystic and–as shown in the Poem of Ecstasy–a genius in orchestration.

Alas, his messianic concept didn’t include recognizable form. Ms. Canellakis’ job was to bring semblance to the chaos, and here, she and the New York Philharmonic proved up to the task. She was not the least bit inhibited to conduct a joyous buffet of bacchanal Roman‑style buccinas (Respighi style?), of trembling strings and expanded brass shouting to the sky, offering the two rather banal themes through a stratospheric metamorphosis.

Powerful (and offtimes loony) stuff, from a composer who died from drink and drugs and exuberance and Ubermensch personality. (Webern’s died more prosaically as we all know, lighting a cigarette.)

Doubtless the most dazzling work on the program, both to audience and this writer, was the Ravel Piano Concerto. Dazzling in three ways. First the unforced jazzy music itself. Second, Alice Sara Ott’s dazzling ivory bejeweled dress. (I was told she was also a fashion designer: no surprise.)

Third, Ms. Ott’s utterly beguiling performance Ravel’s two Allegro movements. Her fingerwork was perfect, the lightness of touch, the jazzy sections so effortless, the sounds so fluid, that Ms. Canellakis was right in keeping the Phil down to chamber sounds.

One was not totally entranced by the Adagio assai. Ms. Ott relied on the pedal instead of allowing this, one of Ravel’s melodic miracles, to speak for itself. The tempos were probably right, but next to the other movements, an unfortunate lassitude was inevitable.

Ms. Ott continued her Gallic joy with a Satie encore, which, had he lived a century more, could have been a Chopin nocturne.

Did I forget one piece? Well, in between Webern’s iridescent quanta, Ravel’s sparkling piano and Scriabin’s stratospheric insanity, Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration lurched like an aging Tyrannosaurus Rex lumbering into a pond of frisky proto-mammals.

Excuse the Jurassic metaphor. I do love the Strauss tone‑poem, but it seemed oh so heavy, oh so archaic next to the more modern works, diverse as they might be. Even the “transfiguration” theme seemed here more like a hackneyed hymn. (Try: “Oh God that art diviiiine, You’re fiiiine.”) Ms. Canellakis gave it her best.

But more than the conductor, the New York Phil wind instruments were resonant, tonally perfect and–perhaps in Strauss’s Codex–sounds to die for.

Harry Rolnick



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