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Is There a Spin Doctor in the House?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/19/2001 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 3
Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra (1928 version)
Robert Schumann: Symphony # 4

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (conductor)

“…a great composer whose music is never heard”

Arnold Schoenberg on Siegfried Wagner

At Yankee Stadium, when a manager gets fired he doesn’t attend the next game, leaving players and fans to muddle along without him, but at least sparing himself the embarrassment of having to walk out onto that field one last time. At Avery Fisher Hall, when a music director gets fired they dedicate an entire season to him. Kurt Masur having been summarily dismissed, the marketing department has now taken over and is touting the new season in a fusillade of advertisements as his “valedictory” year, presenting the Maestro as a hybrid of Furtwaengler, Nikisch and Toscanini. This morning’s newspaper advert calls next year “a grand finale”, leaving the rest of us to conjecture as to whether that of the Sixth Symphony of Mahler or Tchaikovsky is the more appropriate. Masur, his heart and mind understandably already in London and concentrating on his new position, has begun to cancel concerts. This evening’s program was to be the first in a series of four weeks devoted to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Arnold Schoenberg, an event so interesting that its announcement prompted radio station WQXR to mount a live broadcast of the proceedings, but with the withdrawal of the director and the substitution of one of the Philharmonic’s good soldiers, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Schoenberg, the Rodney Dangerfield of classical music, has had his Transfigured Night pulled in favor of the Symphony # 4 of Schumann. The resulting concert followed the old familiar pattern of a short piece of “contemporary” music (now almost 100 years old), a warhorse concerto and a symphony. Schoenberg’s piercing eyes stared out at us from the cover of the program and reproductions of his paintings graced the walls of the Bruno Walter Gallery on the parquet level, but none of his music emanated from the stage. Strange days indeed.

The Januarian nature of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto allows for very differing interpretations. I personally prefer to think of this work as the first real piece of 19th century music (it was written in 1801) because of its revolutionary emphasis on the composer-pianist, but certainly an equally valid thought is one in which the music is a logical continuation of the ethos of Mozart. It appeared that conductor and pianist were on the same page here, both Bronfman and Skrowaczewski holding their considerable resources in check, hardly ever stressing an accent or playing above a mezzoforte. Even the sunburst of a cadenza, which in other hands signals the personality of Beethoven exploding through the veneer of 18th century politeness, was presented as a delicate and balanced essay in manners and propriety. The orchestra sound was perfect for this type of rendition and this discipline speaks to the major gift of the Masur legacy. The performance also marked the debut of new assistant concertmistress Michelle Kim sitting in the first violin chair.

In the slow movement of his Piano Concerto # 1, Brahms creates a complex portrait of the Schumanns which expresses his adoration of Clara and, at the same time, his sorrow at the attempted suicide of Robert. The resulting poem is either a love song or a requiem and is performed without any percussion until the last few measures, when a few strokes of the timpani serve to color the portrait in an eloquent and serious manner, leaving one of its subjects apotheosized and the other eulogized. This style of frugal coloration is at the heart of the orchestral writing of Anton Webern, a single hit of a drum or moan of an alto flute speaking volumes of acoustical meaning. The Phil expressed the fragility of this music well, but its many missed entrances and misplayed tones pointed out the act of hubris on the leader’s part to try and navigate this extremely subtle music without a score. An accurately played but distinctly uninspired version of the Schumann rounded out the program. This concert had the distinct feel of the substitute conductor; it appeared that they were all trying very hard to not make any mistakes, however this gingerly approach left out the essential poetry of the experience.

Over the next three weeks the Philharmonic (without Masur) will survey works of Schoenberg from three distinct periods. First, the thorny monodrama Erwaertung from the bad old days of pantonality, then the Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene from the era of dodecaphonism, and finally the lushly romantic Pelleas und Melisande from the overripe fin-de-siecle. At least that what it says in the brochure.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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