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Half a Loaf

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/08/1999 -  
Edgard Varese: Arcana, Un Grand Sommeil noir
Gustav Mahler: Der Abschied

Ewa Podles (contralto)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Henry Miller once described the music of Edgard Varese as "a self-imposed sock in the jaw" and hearing it over 70 years after its composition one is still struck by its incredible primitiveness and novelty. A good performance of Arcana is truly an experience of primeval power, stirring racial memories of life in the ancient wilderness. No doubt such a performance was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1927 when they presented the world premiere of this importantly distinctive music and a reprise of this unique type of instrumental intensity was granted to us last evening at Carnegie Hall. The ensemble is celebrating its centennial by programming only works of the 20th century and, as much as possible, offering pieces that have a link of performance history with the glorious archives of their own musical library. Stokowski often conducted the work of Varese, presenting several world premieres of this most avant of all the gardists, and helping to arrange for his American citizenship as well.

The Philadelphians are at the height of their powers and last night showed off some of their non-string sections in this boiling hot reading of such an atavistic piece. The requisite Varese sound effects were there but there was also a strong sense of painstakingly constructed chords so complex in nature as to defy total absorption by the ear. Like Charles Ives, Varese added so many notes to his initial chordal unit that he challenged the basis of triadic theory itself and yet moved from tone cluster to cluster in a surprisingly traditional way. It is as if one is lost in the jungle but still has a comfortingly familiar guidebook in their pocket. Sitting in the audience last night I felt the splendor of these sounds and could realize why the next generation of French composers, led by Messiaen, could abandon traditional development altogether in favor of infusing the individual musical moment with as much beauty or power as possible.

Ewa Podles is a very fine contralto and possesses an instrument as powerful and as deep as any woman that I have ever heard. At her recital last season I kept thinking about what it must have been like to hear Ernestine Schumann-Heink in her glorious prime and decided that it must have been similar to witnessing this Polish force of nature. Madame Podles is a contemporary music expert, devoting much of her career to the less lucrative repertoire that she champions so furiously. She sang one song of Varese (orchestrated by Beaumont) as a scene setter for the great Mahler work to come.

At intermission I eagerly anticipated hearing this amazing voice as one of the two singers in Das Lied von der Erde and was extremely disappointed when a man came out to center stage after tuning to announce that the tenor, Donald Litaker, was ill and so we were to hear only the sixth and final section from this emotional song symphony. I don't know who this man was but he was certainly not familiar with his associates, announcing that "Miss Poodles" (the name is pronounced Podlesh) would only sing one number for us. And so here we were saying goodbye already with no Mahlerian build-up describing the world from which we were departing. The performance of the Abschied was a fine one but so nakedly disconcerting as to unbalance me much more than the experimental work of the first half of the program. Lost in all of this scrambling was the connection to the Philadelphia forces, who gave the United States premiere of Das Lied very early on in 1912 just a few months after Mahler's untimely demise. I'm not sure what Maestro Chailly could have done differently (perhaps chuck the Mahler altogether and do a read through of something that they all know by heart, like the "Italian" Symphony) but sending us out onto West 57th Street at 9:30 left us all feeling seduced and abandoned.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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