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The 500 Blows

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/29/2004 -  
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto # 1
Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 6

Lynn Harrell (cello)
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Yuri Temirkanov (conductor)

Although many of my colleagues might be surprised, I am not old enough to have been suitably frightened by Lon Chaney when I was a boy, although I certainly retain a profound admiration for his craft now that silent films are again available for reasonably accessible public consumption. For my generation, the embodiment of evil was the satanically urbane Vincent Price (only the familial Joseph Cotton, as good old Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” was more insidious) and nowhere was he more deliciously threatening than in the vivid, campy charmer “Theater of Blood”. Vincent played a thespian who had simply suffered through one too many bad notices and devolved into a murderer of local critics (in one memorable scene, he forces a reviewer to eat his own dogs!). Thoughts of this character come to the surface as this particular critic publishes his 500th review for concertonet.com and nervously looks over his shoulder on his nocturnal walks through the upper west side of Manhattan.

Leaving off the nostalgia, it is perhaps instructional to observe that the most significant difference between the New York classical scene of 1998 and that of 2004 is the palpably observable decline of its audience. My first notice for Le Concertographe Magazine was of a series of symposia and concerts celebrating the birthday of Arnold Schoenberg. For these relatively arcane events, there was not a seat to be had – every house was full. Not long ago, I attended an all-Schoenberg concert at Alice Tully. When I picked up my tickets at the press box, I commented that they had no seat numbers assigned to them. “Don’t worry”, was the depressed publicity person’s reply. The house (and not a very big one at that) was only about one-eighth full.

So what have we learned on this wild ride? Well, first, it is impossible to get fired in this town. Arts management executives who do unbelievably poor jobs simply get hired by other venues, thus perpetuating the cycle of mediocrity. Ditto maestros. On the plus side, the same group of truly delightful press representatives are still there to accommodate our ticket requests, even though many of them, in our incestuous little world, now work for different institutions (as Jerry Seinfeld says about free agency in sports, you really just root for the shirt). Secondly, to protect critical objectivity, this writer tries very hard to stick to two principles:

1. Never accept an invitation to meet, either professionally or socially, any performer
2. Always remember the person sitting next to you, who paid full price. What kind of bang (or whimper) did he get for his (well over 100) bucks?

On a scale of one to five hundred, this concert by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic has to be ranked squarely at 250. This was a respectable effort from an orchestra “from the provinces” but not one that distinguished itself as either exceptional or unsatisfying. Even making broad allowances for Russian style, I found their play somewhat sloppy, although I can easily understand those in the crowd who considered it expansive. The Rimsky overture was distinguished by the wide gesture, evocative of the Slavic soul but not its crisp realization in music.

Whenever a performer mounts that stage, they are competing with a sense of history. In the cello world, the two works that carry extensive baggage are the Elgar and first Shostakovich concerti. Those of us old enough to remember “Jackie’s jackals” know that critics of the 1970’s and ‘80’s could never allow a cellist to even attempt the Elgar unless they professed fealty to the signature interpretation of Ms. Du Pre. Similarly, the Shostakovich has been totally defined by the percussive play of Rostropovich. However, time enough has past so that a fine performer like Lynn Harrell can have a legitimate go.

Mr. Harrell’s technique was prodigious, his excitement palpable, his wild singing of the orchestral parts endearing. This was a fun performance if not a serious contender to knock Slava off of his perch. The orchestral balances were a bit askew for my taste, and the solo horn was ragged in spots, but overall this was respectable play, noted especially for Harrell’s remarkably clear lines.

The Pathetique by a Russian orchestra ought to be authoritative, but this current rendition was a bit underdone. The opening adagio was all right, but “more please” was the phrase that I kept hearing in my inner ear. The amazingly inventive 5/4 movement was a little too 3/4 for my taste, the world not quite askew enough for a preamble to a suicide note. It is a fact of American concert life that there will be unwanted applause at two junctures in classical music. One is after the false ending in the ”Trout” and the other is at the end of this symphony’s third movement. At least in the Temirkanov performance, the hearty applause was well deserved, the briskness of this Allegro molto vivace the highlight of the evening. Of course, we all missed the beginning of the finale, but subsequent swellings were a bit anemic, and many of the entrances ragged.

I tried very hard not to engineer a particular performance to be number 500, letting, as best that I could, the I Ching sticks fall where they might. Perhaps one would have wished for a splashier anniversary, but, in retrospect, a somewhat average, run of the mill performance may better tell the tale. Let’s wait and see what the 1000th turns out to be.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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