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What do you do with an overweight mermaid?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
01/16/2014 -  & January 17, 18*, 2014
Igor Stravinsky: Le Chant du rossignol: Poème symphonique
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Bassoon in B-flat Major, K. 186e [191]
Alexander von Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau

Judith LeClair (Bassoon)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrey Boreyko (Conductor)

J. Le Clair/A. Boreyko (© New York Philharmonic Orchestra)

In an evening of exotic fairy tales, the greatest honor went not to Mozart or Stravinsky or Zemlinsky or the New York Philharmonic or even Maestro Andrey Boreyko.

Judith LeClair, the orchestra’s First Chair Bassoonist was soloist in Mozart’s early concerto for the instrument. Having written her own cadenza for the first movement, Ms. LeClair was no shrinking violet. The cadenza was about one-third the length of the entire Allegro movement, it summoned up the total compass of her instrument, it gave the chance to whirl up and down all those register, while keeping–with one exception–Mozart’s own personality. (The one exception was a sudden change of key, which Mozart probably would have countenanced.)

These few minutes hardly took away from Mr. Boreyko’s exhausting conducting chores. But the Mozart Concerto is not one of the composer’s most inspired, and it took a person of Ms. LeClair’s virtuosity and understanding to give it the unexpected crown of the evening.

It was evident that Ms. LeClair knows her Mozart as well as her instrument. Mozart might not have written a great concerto per se, but he was always a great opera composer, and these melodies were played with operatic grace.

Book-ending the concert, Mr. Boreyko, visually one of the most exciting conductors around, gave two contrary symphonic pictures of two tales by Hans Christian Andersen.

Here, Igor Stravinsky took the literally glittering honors. After all, the subject of The Emperor’s Nightingale had been suggested to the young composer by the most famed Russian Orientalist, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. And while Stravinsky didn’t achieve the appropriate form for another two decades–it was to be a ballet, an opera and finally a symphonic poem–the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov is shown in all the fausse chinoiserie of the 20-minute score.

Yet this does it a dishonor. Chinese imitation has been in music since the 16th Century, mainly with gongs and pentatonic harmonies. Turandot would be an exception, but that came later than Stravinsky’s poem, which was glittering, gleaming, glistening tableau.

Boreyko almost gave a visual picture of an Emperor’s palace. This was the essence, not the imitation of the Orient. (Again, bless Rimsky-Korsakov.) And with the most beautiful flute solo, a hearty wind section and a non-stop galvanic tempo by Mr.Boreyko–himself an inheritor of the St. Petersburg tradition–it was a rarely-heard Stravinsky in all its glory.

The other Hans Christian Andersen took up all 40 minutes of the second half. The composer, Alexander Zemlinsky, was known in his heyday as a fine conductor and teacher, a cuckold, a man of anecdotal physical ugliness, and last of all, as a composer.

In The Mermaid, fantasy in three movements for large orchestra, one can understand why his reputation is not exactly honored today. A fairy-tale needs the lightness of Stravinsky, the color of Suk, (who wrote his own much longer Fairy Tale) or the tunefulness of a Humperdinck. None of which was provided here.

Zemlinsky inevitably would be described as having a “grandiose palette”. His orchestra is huge, his themes both ecstatic and long-winded, his orchestration as thickly laid on as the early Schoenberg, of the similar Pelléas et Mélisande), it is tentatively cohesive, since no Strauss-style storyline has ever been found.

Had this been about a Homeric hero, a medieval knight, a languorous love romance...well, fine. But this was the tragic story of a mermaid. Dancing, watery foam (beautifully laid out in the beginning with the horns), unrequited love and an ascent into Mermaid Heaven.

Under Mr. Boreyko, the work never flagged, its melodies, if endless, peeped out from the weighty orchestra, and he almost made a case for the composer.

But when The Mermaid was finished, one still longed for the lithe rippling tones of Ms. LeClair and the ravishing orchestra of Igor Stravinsky. Music is filled with weighty opuses, but an overweight mermaid can easily be thrown overboard.

Harry Rolnick



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