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Summer and Smoke

New York
Zankel Hall
10/20/2003 -  
Maurice Ravel:Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. Posth; Sonata for Violin and Cello; Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera (transcribed for cello and piano); Chansons madécasses; "Chanson italienne"; Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera; "Chanson espagnole"; Piano Trio
Joseph Kalichstein (piano)
Jaime Laredo (violin)
Sharon Robinson (cello)
Katarina Karneus (mezzo)
Tara Helen O'Connor (flute)

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the
emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”

Zen koan

Poor Carnegie Hall! Any positive buzz that might have been created in this town with the opening of a new chamber music space in the basement was significantly clouded by the disturbing news, just after the season ended, that they might be taken over in the 2006-07 season by the New York Philharmonic. The announcement of the “merger” was greeted by such an ambuscade of concern from both ends of the critical spectrum that it was soon dropped from the Carnegie website, as many of my print colleagues pointed out the deleterious effect on the concertgoer coinciding with the loss of programming autonomy of the music world’s most storied institution, although surprisingly few critics bemoaned the obvious deterioration of quality inherent in scheduling interminable weeks of the Phil’s signature brand of unfocused and superficial traversal.

But life goes on and the new Zankel Hall opened anyway, however not without its own taint of controversy. At the annual winter luncheon, Carnegie executive director Robert Harth was forced to admit that, although there was now a third concert venue available, the total number of classical concerts per annum at the three locations (Stern Auditorium, Zankel and Weill) would remain the same as last season when there were only two houses, leaving prospective ticket buyers wondering how any of this was an improvement for the aesthetic health of our city. In the best deus ex machina tradition, the takeover bid was rescinded in the very first week of the new season, creating a sigh of relief as audible as every fire engine that speeds by the grand old auditorium. The issues encircling Carnegie’s future and that of serious music in New York as a whole are now so hydra-headed that they beg for some intensive scrutiny. Very graciously, the hall’s press office has invited ConcertoNet.com to spend the month of February exclusively covering events at all three of its venues. With a projected sixteen evenings on the horizon, we hope to explore during that period some of these thorny matters in an intelligent and, as much as humanly possible, considering that many of the people involved are my friends and colleagues, dispassionate manner.

The principal donors spent so much for the new space that they expect us all to refer to them as “zan-KELL”, which reminds me that, if the music director of the Metropolitan Opera up the street doesn’t snap out of his lethargy during orchestral programs soon, New Yorkers will again begin to call him “le-VEEN”. What we got for their money was wood, a considerable quantity of blond wood and slats, laid out in a Japanese matting pattern actually quite calming, a feng shui of peace and tranquility, although a little IKEA for my taste.

Unfortunately, that peace is shattered by two factors, one completely controllable and the other, apparently, less so. Framing of the music in silence is very important to this listener, and I always come to a concert as soon as the doors are opened so that I can absorb the atmosphere of the hall and relish a bit of quiet contemplation before the show starts. However, the Zankel people have determined that there should be a constant stream of distraction in our already harried lives and so, unbelievably, play background music in the hall whilst we are all assembling! The bill of fare is a repetitious jumble of styles and, although the one classical snippet (a few moments from the Dvorak Piano Quintet) may be pleasing in itself the first several times through, the net effect is simply cheapening, turning this potential temple of art into little more than a K-Mart. Note to Carnegie management: this tape should be turned off immediately.

I am long over my midlife crisis and so have no desire to be considered “hip”, which therefore allows me to disagree with my print brethren who state that they find the sound of the rumbling subway during the performance “urban”, “in your face”, or “cutting edge New York”. Rather, it is simply inexcusable. Perhaps a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains might be enhanced by this insistent noise, but, for a composer whose sensibilities were as delicate as those of Ravel, the effect was deeply discordant. These same critics notwithstanding, it takes several visits to accurately judge the acoustics of a new hall (somewhat of a moot point with the other sonic unpleasantness taking center stage), so I am going to table my comments on this issue.

The concert itself was a mixed blessing. The esteemed Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio temporarily left their East Side digs at the 92nd Street Y to treat us all to an evening of Ravel. Normally reliable violinist Jaime Laredo was tentative in the opening section of the sonata, not really righting himself until the steady hand of Mr. Kalichstein took advantage of the slight echo and created an underwater world in which his mate could float successfully. Much more satisfying was the lively and rhythmically complex duo of violin and cello in their own sonata, a notorious finger breaker with dotted passages and syncopations galore, nailed by Ms. Robinson with the skill of a jazz bassist. Also, the inclusion of a cello and piano transcription of a song then sung by the mezzo was a touch of inspired programming.

The down side of the evening was the rather obvious sense of discomfort that these otherwise fine performers had with their environment. Being musicians and not actors, they were not successful at hiding their facial expressions when natural irritation showed itself repeatedly because of the intrusions from the nearby tracks. Mezzo Katarina Karneus appears to be a bit of a shouter, but perhaps she was simply overcompensating in order to be heard. She certainly has some diction problems, however, and swallowed a good deal of the fast part of Aoua!. At one point, the performers all paused an inordinate amount of time between songs, as a particularly long train (or so it seemed) passed by. Starting up again after silence was restored, the new song was very soon skewed by yet another express. The members of KLR must have been wondering why they had ever left the Y.

As in many dysfunctional families, the new baby makes the most noise and receives all of the attention, leaving its older sibling to be ignored and forgotten. As for me, in future I will attend my chamber music concerts at Weill, if you don’t mind.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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