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Danny Boy

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/05/2005 -  11/03/05;11/04/05
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sinfonia concertante, Ka9; Flute Concerto # 1
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 5
Elliott Carter: Soundings
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 9
Arnold Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 5

Mathieu Dufour (flute)
Alex Klein (oboe)
Larry Combs (clarinet)
David McGill (bassoon)
Dale Clevenger (horn)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor and piano)

No, it is not time yet for the annual visit of the Vienna Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall, but you might not know that if you only glanced at the programs from this weekend. Rather, it was the Gotham stop on the farewell tour of Daniel Barenboim as music director of the Chicago Symphony, but, except for one short piece by Elliott Carter, the bills of fare were all Viennese.

Barenboim resigned as head of the CSO in a fit of pique and then immediately called for a vote of the orchestra personnel to gain readmittance. However, the players voted to keep him out, and a good decision it was. The poster child for inconsistency, he never does a series of concerts without both a very good performance and a rather substandard one, and these three evenings were typical.

Night one began with Mozart, specifically the Sinfonia Concertante for wind quartet and orchestra, Ka9. The four players (see above) were all crisp and clean and very well balanced both amongst themselves and with their corpus of mates. This was elegant Mozart, as was the next evening’s Flute Concerto # 1 (the flute was the missing instrument in the prior piece), and this should not be forgotten in the muddle of some of Mr. B’s other efforts.

The big work on the first concert was the extremely spiritual Symphony # 5 of Anton Bruckner. Sergiu Celibadache once called this essay the “folk music of another planet”. Certainly it is highly personal communication with the diety, a direct communication from the organ loft to the Heavenly throne. Or so it should be, except that it was painfully obvious that this conductor has no relationship whatsoever with God.

The CSO has an amazing brass section, but Barenboim uses it profligately, the overall effect of this usually beautiful symphony one of bellicosity and stridency. The fortissimo blaring really began to wear me down after a while, as it eventually did the players, who struggled in vain for proper intonation. Barenboim rather preciously kept us all in silence for a very long time before commencing the finale. He might have better utilized this time to retune the orchestra.

On the second night, after that splendid flute concerto, Mr. Barenboim turned valedictory, paying homage to the 96 year old Carter. The piece took as much time (10 minutes) to set up as to perform and it took Mr. Carter at least that long to hobble up onto the stage. The tepid applause for this arbitrary work escalated to a rousing standing ovation for the nonagenarian as he made his way up the stairs, reminding this reviewer of Lenny Bruce’s classic routine about mentioning the White Cliffs of Dover to soften the crowd at the London Palladium.

The featured music on the second program was the ”Great” C Major of Schubert and this too was a good performance. I would have wished for a little more spirit and a lot less tuba, but on the whole this was the finest hour of the trio of evenings. We need to not lose sight of Barenboim’s ability to deliver when he jolly well feels like it.

Night three displayed the good, the bad and the ugly that comprises Daniel Barenboim. I have always admired his playing of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto and tonight he led a focused, if sometimes muddy performance of the extremely difficult to perform Variations for Orchestra. Although not an anniversary year, these variations are to be performed three times in New York this season, next by Rattle and Berlin and finally by Maazel and the Phil.

There are really two ways to perform this tricky piece. They are variations after all, and so one way is to stop after each variation in order to emphasize the episodic nature of the piece. This is the manner that most conductors prefer, although the main reason is so that all of the players have a moment to catch up. Otherwise, of course, one can simply conduct it straight through, a more common technique in the recording studio when, in actuality, individual variation takes are strung together by the engineers. However, Mr. Barenboim chose yet a third path, stopping after some variations but not others. Was he trying to make a point about de facto movements and symphonic structure? I would like to hear this version a few more times to find out. It was, at the least, intriguing.

What followed was a soulless reading of the Mahler 5, loud, blaring, fuzzy, inaccurate, out of tune mishmash. There was not even a hint of the funereal in the first movement, the hornist (Mr. Clevenger) flubbed badly often in the de facto concerto that is movement three, and the Adagietto was just awful, all of its beauty sacrificed to the notion that it must be played forever faster and faster, ever since it was revealed that the composer preferred a brisk tempo. Mr. Barenboim is close to Pierre Boulez and he is the champion of this outrageous tempo. But even his versions have more discipline. Since there is no brass in this movement, Barenboim allowed his harpist to be much too loud and twangy, preserving, I guess, his idea of a signature Chicago sound.

So a new man will lead the CSO soon. Some names of interest are Conlon, Nagano and Robertson, but I believe that the board will go with a bigger name, perhaps a part time Riccardo Muti. In any case, it is well past a time for a change.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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