The Dawn of the Interregnum
Avery Fisher Hall
Frank Martin: Petite Symphonie Concertante
Hector Berlioz: Le Roi Lear Overture
Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano), Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone), Nancy Allen (harp), Harriet Wingreen (piano), Lionel Party (harpsichord)
New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
Finally in the middle of November the New York Philharmonic has begun its true concert season. Except for a mini-Beethoven festival and a few minor skirmishes with the artist formerly known as Kennedy (or whatever he wants to be called these days) the orchestra has been residing in Cologne for the month of October and this weekend is its first back in the States. This is also the beginning of the lame-duck era of Kurt Masur. He is not being invited back at the end of his contract and has recently accepted the position of principal of the London Philharmonic to begin in the year 2000. My sources tell me that the heir apparent to Bernstein, Michael Tilson-Thomas will get the position at Avery Fisher. Mr. Tilson-Thomas has all of the correct demographics (he is American, Jewish and gay) to please any selection committee in the Big Apple and he and his San Franciscans were granted opening night at Carnegie Hall this year. He is committed to musical education and is a media darling (could a new series of Young People's Concerts be on the horizon?). The parade of guest conductors for 1999 is decidedly not an array of applicants being put through their paces as auditioners for this prized but troubled position and this would indicate that the decision has already been made. With Valery Gergiev poised to take over at the Met at the slightest sign of dissatisfaction from Maestro Levine and the Philadelphia Orchestra job open just down the highway this is a fertile time for speculation in the New York music scene.
Sir Colin is certainly not interested in this high profile assignment and can blissfully program an evening of rarities for our enjoyment. The Petite Symphonie Concertante was a good opening to showcase the improved sound of the Philharmonic strings and is an interesting blend of Baroque and modern sonority eerily similar to the concerti grossi of that other twentieth century Swiss composer Ernst Bloch. I am very partial to the sound of the harp and the Martin, with its diaphanous textures, is one of the few pieces for orchestra that allows even the mid and lower registers of this narrowly dynamic instrument to be clearly heard (even Berlioz and Rimsky only orchestrate properly for the shriller high notes). Nancy Allen is as close as we have today to a harp star and she plays with a marvelously clear timbre and an air of supreme confidence. The piano and harpsichord parts are more of a continuo nature and serve to recall the chamber orchestras of Cavalli and Couperin. This charming piece was paced beautifully by Sir Colin who has established himself as an expert in the French and Swiss repertoire over his long career.
Aribert Reimann notwithstanding, some of the great composers have tried and failed to fashion an opera from King Lear. Verdi and Boito actually began a libretto project and Berlioz was haunted for years by the image of the outcast ruler. The Le Roi Lear Overture is more of a tone poem which made the last minute shift of its position in the concert more palatable and allowed the full forces of the Philharmonic to show off their ensemble sound which is slowly approaching world class status. The overture takes us on a wild ride through sections of heraldric romance, anguish and rollicking comedy reminiscent of the Roman Carnival. What an opera this would have been!
The disappointment of the evening was the Mahler. It is surprising that these 12 beautiful songs, the Ur-text of so much of Mahler's early symphonic material, are performed so rarely. However when they are presented they should be very moving and last night, with one exception, they were not. Here the familiar Philharmonic sloppiness emerged with wrong entrances and broken brass notes. The conducting seemed colorless and limp and there was in no way a sense that these twelve episodes were connected. Inger Dam-Jensen is a past winner of the humble Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She possesses a relatively small voice although has a fine command of its range. She did rise to the occasion for the most moving piece in the set Wo die Schoenen Trompeten Blasen (Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow), the song of a soldier as he bids farewell to his sweetheart while Mahler's dark martial orchestration leaves no doubt that he will ever return. Thomas Quasthoff is said to be an up-and-comer with a good reputation in Europe. He has a secure lower register but is shaky in his upper notes and has no discernible volume in his instrument. He does act well with his voice and was suitably comic in Lob des Hohen Verstandes (Praise from an Advanced Intellect) complete with braying sounds and bird calls. He is set to record the cycle with Anne Sophie von Otter and should be the willing beneficiary of good amplification. But there was no wunder in this knaben's horn last night. Ultimately this was a pale performance that didn't justify its resurrection from the filing cabinet of Mahlerian juvenalia.
This Philharmonic season, without a strong leader, is all over the place. The variety can be refreshing after years of Masur's narrow Central European repertoire but performances like this one do not bode well for the continued direction of this most volatile of ensembles.
Frederick L. Kirshnit