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The Book on Daniel

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/08/2001 -  03/09/01 03/10/01
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 26
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 7
Felix Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream
Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d'ete
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Augusta Read Thomas: Aurora
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 7

Elizabeth Norman (soprano)
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo)
Chicago Symphony
Daniel Barenboim (conductor and piano)

Daniel Barenboim has a penchant for extended stays in New York. A cornerstone of the Perspectives Series at Carnegie Hall as a solo performer, he also brought his Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra to town for an entire week of Beethoven in December. Now it is his other ensemble’s turn as the Chicago Symphony makes camp on 57th Street for three evenings devoted to pivotal works whose curtain raisers feature two superstar guest performers: the increasingly arcane Cecilia Bartoli (complete with cult followers) and the maddeningly erratic but always newsworthy Barenboim himself. I never know what to expect of this bipolar artist; will it be the thoughtful conductor and pianist who often dazzles with his profound musical thoughts or will his alter ego, a pitifully lazy and sloppy practitioner who seems to have only deigned to show up for the princely remuneration, take center stage instead? Sometimes both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appear on the same program and these are the most bizarre evenings of all.

Day One: Pomp and Circumstance

Both works on the program this evening were written for occasions of great import. Mozart played his ”Coronation” Concerto for the ascendancy of Emperor Leopold II and Bruckner included in his Symphony # 7 a solemn memorial to his own personal imperial figure, Richard Wagner, on the news of his demise. Almost exactly one year ago (March 4th rather than the 8th) I heard these same performers in a coupling of the 25th Concerto and the Symphony # 4. On that occasion, the Bruckner was magnificent but the Mozart was ponderous. Would it be deja-vu all over again?

Actually, yes. The only factor which made this Mozart more palatable than last season’s is that the work is ceremonial and somewhat less delicate than the other concerti of the period. However, Barenboim should probably not attempt Mozart at the keyboard any longer, his literal heavy-handedness most inappropriate stylistically (and, with no conductor to point this out to him, not likely to change anytime soon). The sound of the orchestra was polished enough, but it is the wrong sound for this type of music, much too corpulent for the era. The Bruckner was quite a satisfying performance, the exceptional CSO brass shining throughout, the Wagner tuba chorale written upon the death of the meister very moving. Most impressive was Barenboim’s manipulation of the strings, especially in passages such as appear in the Adagio wherein there are four distinct instrumental lines. The balance was such that each of the four progressions was clearly executed and yet there was a superb sense of blending (the antiphonal platform positioning helped immeasurably). I would have wished for more intensity in the third movement. After all, with such a fabulous brass section there was an opportunity for world-class relentlessness, but this possibility was simply missed. Overall, the orchestra sounds terrific, although, after all of this time, it does not bear any appreciable stamp of Daniel’s tenure, rather still reminding of the halcyon days of Solti (perhaps this is ultimately a blessing).

Day Two: The Two Seasons

At first glance there are few common threads between Les Nuits d’ete and Le Sacre. The former is French music wishing desperately to be German, while the latter is Russian music that couldn’t be more Gallic. The first was written by the acknowledged master of orchestration, whose light palette produced the perfect aural representation of those sultry summer evenings on the Mediterranean coast. The second is in many ways a violent reaction against conventional orchestration, prompting Camille Saint-Saens to walk out of the premiere of the ballet when the opening bassoon entrance was beyond the pale of the standard textbook on the subject, coincidentally written by Berlioz himself. But a closer examination of the two works reveals a similar method of timbral painting, each amazingly evocative of their individual climes and both plumbing the depths of atavistic reaction to the most elemental changes in man’s life cycle. There is a certain hollowness that becomes the background of each of these landscapes and it is this very vacuum which tugs so imploringly at our hearts.

Mysteriously, tonight’s program began with a previously unannounced but not terribly together reading of the brief Mendelssohn excerpt. I imagine that this was included for two reasons:

1.so Ms. Bartoli could have more of a star turn
2. so that the latecomers could file in without too much disruption (bravo!).

Certainly Cecilia Bartoli has a magnificent voice and can control it with an awesome degree of musicianship. All of her tones are pear shaped, her lower register is amazingly secure, and her transitions from one note to the next are seamless. But nowhere in this highly charged song cycle of Berlioz did she move me. I am afraid that she is too perfect. For example, the two excruciating high notes in Sur les Lagunes should be the emotional center of the work, but in Ms. Bartoli’s capable throat they are merely a pair of impressive intonations, instrumental clarity rather than human strain. This style of singing might be all right for Vivaldi, but, when dealing with the Romantics, in order to be full-bodied one must utilize all of one’s organs, including the heart. Give me Jan De Gaetani or Janet Baker any day. The orchestra was suitably quiet but unremarkable. For an encore, this latter day Isabella Colbran accompanied herself on the castanets in a lively piece of zarzuela. This was great fun and perhaps more in character for this endearing eccentric. Needless to say, her adoring fans loved every minute of it and many of them beat a hasty retreat before the big, bad Stravinsky came on.

Barenboim struggled noticeably from the first in The Rite. Obviously unfamiliar with the piece, he stared in apparent disbelief at the printed material more than once (by contrast, he had conducted the Bruckner without a score) and led a performance that was sloppy not taut, flaccid not febrile. The silences, so important for this composition to have any effect whatsoever, were disrupted more than once by the odd brass player coming in at the wrong time and, when the winds got hopelessly entangled, the conductor leaned back against the Bernstein bar (the most annoying of his bad habits) and just listened with the rest of us. I am the first to admit that I do not like this work (I find it to rely too heavily on a bunch of cheap thrills), but it certainly deserves a better effort than the one this night.

Day Three: A Little Night Music

At least ten years ago, I attended a wonderful performance of the Mahler 3 under Zubin Mehta at Orchestra Hall, the highlight of which was the appearance of a boy’s choir gleaned from the public school system of Chicago. The enthusiasm of the singers was infectious and much more charming than the yeomanlike renditions of more professional organizations. Deeply involved in their community (unlike our aloof New York Philharmonic), the Chicago Symphony prides itself on developing and presenting local resources and helping to elevate them to the highest artistic level. One of the fruits of that labor of love is their association with the music consultant to the Chicago school system, Elizabeth Norman, whose soprano voice (as well as Barenboim’s piano) was featured in the first composition of the evening, written by composer in residence Augusta Read Thomas (apparently no relation to CSO founder Theodore Thomas). Ms. Thomas was born in 1964, at just the time that Maderna and Nono were doing their best work. Aurora is reminiscent of the Venetian avant-garde (the solo flute recalling the Milanese Castiglioni) and its passion for crepuscular cityscapes. The ethereal tones of Ms. Norman wafting over the menacing growls of the colorful chamber group created an almost cinematic landscape of urban uncertainty.

Shadows of night grew much longer in the Mahler 7. Back in his element, Maestro immediately took command of a superb performance leaning towards the slow side of this work eloquently explored by Lorin Maazel. Here was Barenboim in yet a third style of conducting, using the score for reference but seemingly very familiar with his cuing responsibilities, concentrating on inner voices in the second violins and violas and rightly (but alas unusually) allowing the two harps to be heard above the fray. The seven member percussion section was eloquent in the complexities of the end of the first movement, the mournful tempi bring out the nobility of the “night watch” march in the second, the fits and starts of the third movement presented with just the right touch of feline mystery. But it was in the lovely Andante amoroso where this performance really glowed. The interplay between principal hornist Dale Clevenger and the two Italian street instruments (if you have any doubt that Death in Venice is about Mahler, just listen to this movement) was delicious, the last section with its delicate clarinet trill and morendo guitar sublime. The finale was suitably exciting (it always is, even in the most lead-footed of renditions) and the crowd erupted in paroxysms of excitement. The ovation was so sincere and sustained and the moment so right that Barenboim lingered at the podium and waited for the crowd to quiet before presenting an encore (this is rare for an American orchestra). A gorgeous traversal of the Adagietto for Strings and Harp from the 5th was the perfect ending to a very heartfelt evening.

Daniel Barenboim continues to be an enigma. His varying degrees of professionalism and attention span defy encapsulated description. The only statement that I can make conclusively is that he remains consistently inconsistent.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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