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Yesterday's History; Tomorrow's Mystery

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/29/2001 -  
Richard Strauss: Five Songs
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 6

Barbara Bonney (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

When Christoph Eschenbach substituted for an ill Kurt Masur back in November, you couldn’t find a seat for love nor money in this town. At that time he was considered the prime candidate to take over the Philharmonic and everyone was curious about him. Now, just a few months later, he has become simply another marcher in the parade preceding Lorin Maazel and it is a little easier to go and hear him. The Philharmonic need not worry about such matters; they are the envy of every other New York ensemble, as they perform the same concert four times in one week and sell out virtually every seat every night at cavernous Avery Fisher. Of course, in Philadelphia (my other beat), curiosity runs high about this flamboyant conductor as the city waits for both its new concert hall and leader to rekindle the gas spotlight on Broad Street, optimistically renamed the Avenue of the Arts. The Mahler 6 is a good vehicle for judging a podium aspirant, filled as it is with coloristic effect, complex orchestral writing and the heights and depths of intense emotion. Would this new golden boy have the wherewithal to tame the Philharmonic beast or simply wither and die as so many before him?

Actually, neither. Although he was able to impose his will upon them rather commandingly, these rebellious players were still able to get him in the end. Eschenbach exaggerated the effects in the Mahler so foolishly that he forgot the basic premise that for color to serve any purpose it must have something to modify. This performance was like one of those mediocre paintings which art historians have found covers a rare masterwork underneath, only we were experiencing it before the restorers had begun to remove the ugly veneer. The balance of this rendition was askew in two ways. Acoustically, the brass and percussion were much too loud throughout and, unlike that dreadful Bruckner 9 a few weeks ago with Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York players could not possibly sustain any decent intonation at these megadecibel levels. Secondly, the perspective of all effects on deck was immediately irritating and precious, engulfing the totality of the emotional center and leaving only an annoying string of arbitrary bleats and brays, to use Mahler’s own description of another of his movements (from the ”Resurrection” Symphony), “the world as in a concave mirror” (of course, in that case, it is supposed to sound slightly out of kilter). This reading gave much aid and comfort to Mahler’s many detractors who maintain that his symphonies are too loud, too blaring, too heart-on-sleeve. The 6th is rather a long go and after a while I began to envy the percussionist who was able to exit now and then through his little side door in order to play the offstage parts (speaking of which, they were universally overplayed, negating their desired echo effect by the sheer weight of their volume). Even the normally beautiful third movement was sacrificed to Echenbach’s pursuit of the colorful moment, the wind choirs completely inverted so that the melody of the English horn was drowned in a harmony of flute and clarinet. The Phil’s Phil and Phil show (principal trumpet and horn players Smith and Myers) was particularly tedious in the other three loud movements, and even though there were some gorgeous moments, the only effect that Eschenbach emphasized in this particular listener was a throbbing headache.

Barbara Bonney began the evening with five timid versions of Strauss, the first four of which were accompanied by a very strange sound, woefully thin and pallid (especially bizarre for the normally opulent orchestrator). Only the last song, Morgen, was satisfying orchestrally, and this is because the underpinnings were only concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, with a wonderful solo vibrato, and two harps playing over muted string tremolos. The other four pieces were hollow and stylistically anachronistic; Herr Eschenbach’s Viennese whipped cream little more than meringue.

I had only heard this conductor previously in Houston and had assumed that the thin ensemble sound there was due to years of provincialism. Perhaps I need to rethink that idea and place more responsibility at the podium level. Last evening was the worst that I have heard the New York Philharmonic sound in a number of years, as if the assiduous improvements of Masur were only an illusion. Hopefully, the hammerblows of Fate aren’t waiting to smite the good people of Philadelphia; if Maestro Eschenbach ever creates a blend like this at the new hall, there is not enough brotherly love available to prevent him from being run out of town on a rail.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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