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Road Trip

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/25/2000 -  
Sofia Gubaidulina: Two Paths

Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 1

Cynthia Phelps, Rebecca Young (violas)
New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur (conductor)

Although they might not admit it publicly, most orchestral musicians await a Carnegie Hall appearance with great anticipation. For an ensemble from the provinces, the journey to this venerable institution is the highlight of their professional season if not their entire musical career. This is not to say that conductors and performers don’t give their all back home, but there is a special kind of motivational magic that accompanies an appearance on 57th Street. Last night a wide-eyed group of visitors performed within these sacred walls but they had actually only traveled the seven blocks from Avery Fisher Hall and yet found themselves a world away, getting their chance to appear in the big show at least this once. The overlay of emotion and history was thick with the memory that Mahler himself conducted this orchestra here in the American premiere of his Symphony #1 and introduced the Western hemisphere to his own cutting edge ideas on the nature of orchestral music.

Fittingly, Maestro Masur chose a contemporary work to open this landmark event. The Gubaidulina is as revolutionary in its own way as the Mahler was in its own day and was lovingly played by its two dedicatees. I especially enjoyed the confluence of melody when not only the two competent viola soloists but also the associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples joined forces for a surprisingly lyrical section midway in the piece and I was struck overall with the spirituality of this work, a mellowing perhaps of the young Tatar into a devoted member of the Kancheli school of post-millennial devotion. The piece seemed highly unified and exhibited an actual classical architecture so often missing from the modern idiom. Without doubt this was a fine performance and everyone was touched by its sincerity.

Mahler was surprisingly conservative as conductor of the Philharmonic, programming only his first two symphonies while he was here. The first was so poorly received in Europe that some well meaning critics, ironically well disposed to the master, actually put forth the theory that the work was a sophisticated conductor’s parody of a symphony. Surely it is jarring upon first hearing, the sounds of nature opening a wild landscape more suited to a medieval nightmare than a fin-de-siècle dream. Maestro last evening opted to conduct without a score and showed that in the Central European repertoire at least he is quite comfortable idiomatically. Masur and Mahler actually came to this troubled orchestra during similar periods of disarray but their approaches to the problem have been very dissimilar. Mahler immediately fired about a third of the ensemble (I remember once Beverly Sills referring to him as "that nasty little man") while Masur has tried to conservatively elevate the performance standards. Now that Muti is rumored to be the frontrunner to take the reigns it is fascinating to think of the changes to come, but last evening Masur proved himself a worthy guardian of the sacred flame.

After a hesitant beginning the troops rallied to perform a spirited first movement, Masur pacing the Ging heut morgen übers Feld with a fine grace and lilt. The second movement was performed extremely lustily, the orchestra (especially the first violins) digging in hard to the Viennese rhythm and not compromising it at all for the long haul. Masur seemed particularly at home this night, gesturing and smiling as befits a bandleader shepherding his flock through their most important concert of the year. The intonation of the brass was flawless and the dotted rhythms of the woodwinds superbly complex. I noticed several patrons bobbing and weaving to the infectious beat.

The most fascinating section was the round that is the third movement. It was stunning to actually see the music move from one desk to another, although there was a bad patch in the middle where it seemed that they might lose the flow and that the animals carrying the dead hunter might sink into a bog of quicksand but Masur rallied his minions and all was well. The finale opened with an excruciatingly ear-splitting crash and swirled excitedly to its orgiastic conclusion. The augmented horn section was especially brilliant, although this would have been the night to let them stand up (it is expressly noted by Mahler in the score that they should do so) but alas no. Masur did however perform a marvel of orchestral balance in this final section, every inner voice illuminated and clear.

The audience was tremendously caught up in the action, applauding with such force and endurance that Maestro finally had to lead concertmaster Glenn Dicterow by the hand so that all of the others would follow them offstage. Like proud parents, we all stayed until the last, wildly cheering our native sons and daughters on their successful visit out of town.

The proof of a really good performance is its ability to last. I can attest that the following morning, as I write these lines, the final clarion call of the horns echoes in my mind’s ear and fills me with optimism and civic pride. It’s great to discover another fine visiting orchestra that will hopefully grace the Carnegie stage more often in future.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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