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Caching (and Bouncing) a Few Czechs

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/29/2001 -  04/30/01 05/02/01
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony # 8;Te Deum;Symphonic Variations;Scherzo capriccioso;Violin Concerto
Leos Janacek: Taras Bulba; Glagolitic Mass
Bohuslav Martinu: Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Bedrich Smetana: from Ma Vlast

Sarah Chang (violin)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Andrea Dankova (soprano)
Marina Domashenko (mezzo)
Sergej Larin (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Catherine Edwards (organ)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

It’s spring again and that most musical of all cities, Prague, is having its annual festival. The two main auditoria in New York are competing for the music lover’s dollar with a number of concerts of their own which correspond to the rites on the Vltava. Already, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s has presented two evenings at Carnegie, there are a cappella events planned around town, and a complete performance of Ma Vlast by the Philadelphia Orchestra is nigh. Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony, fresh from their own minifest at home, brought a bouquet of Czech and Slovak flowers to Lincoln Center featuring three very promising programs which displayed some of the many variegated blooms nurtured around Wenceslas Square.

Day One: Color and Contrast

That promise was fulfilled only partially at the first event. Taras Bulba is an extremely colorful tone poem about War and Death (sort of a Lt. Kije, but about real people) and it was performed in a very taut and exciting rendition. Most impressive were the tonal hues of an entire palette, marred only by a blaring quality in the trumpets. The lines were sweeping in scope, the playing crisp in execution. In a bit of intelligent programming, Sir Colin chose the instrumental work most closely attuned to the Slavonic Mass scheduled for the next evening. The combination of organ and timpani in the orchestral suite, so primitive in its emotive power, is exactly the same sonorous devise employed in the liturgical work, the endings of the two pieces mirror images. Not only a fine performance in itself, this instrumental showpiece served as a tantalizing preview of things to come.

Bohuslav Martinu was a prodigiously prolific composer who spent most of his mature years in America. He authored six wonderful symphonies, the charming A Bouquet of Flowers, the opera The Greek Passion and numerous chamber works. Yet he is virtually unknown in the States. His gorgeous piece for viola and orchestra was written not long after that of Bartok (also in America) and it received a superb performance in the hands of the principal of the group. Another spin of the color wheel, this Rhapsody-Concerto is adept at the presentation and combination of timbres, a true canvas of tonal color. Not only was the soloist inspired, the essentially string orchestra accompaniment was able to produce an amazing variety of tonkunst, given the competent, but hardly remarkable, sound of the section as a whole. Kudos to all for giving us an opportunity to hear such a luxuriant work so lovingly performed.

It has been my experience of this ensemble, however, that they are a very inconsistent bunch, capable of fantastic imagery and thrilling nights of music making, but also equally able to lull their audience (and themselves) into somnolence. The old Dvorak warhorse must have been suffering from a slight case of an equine disease, for it was extremely listless and hesitant. Sir Colin seemed perfectly willing to let it gimp instead of gallop, tarry instead of trot. What a shame that so lively a piece as the Eighth (almost the very emblem of Bohemian peasant fire) could be laid out so flatly and in so tepid and uninspired a manner. Three days of the London Symphony may be a very long go; they are the British equivalent of the New York Philharmonic.

Day Two: God in All Things

The American connection continued with a performance of the short Te Deum, which Dvorak premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1892. This is exultant music and was played as such by the orchestra and sung magnificently by the London Symphony Chorus. The brightest spot was the emergence of a rising star, mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko, whose powerful voice rang out majestically (you could hear her at the fountain). Ms. Domashenko has the rare ability to project not only big notes but also strong emotions and is an extremely attractive young creature as well. Residents of Northern California should run to the box office to purchase tickets for her upcoming Carmen in San Francisco. It was important to present a work of standard Catholic liturgy on the same program as the mighty Janacek mass to come, however this fifteen minutes of fame used up virtually all of the inspiration of the evening.

From Te Deum to Te Dium, the soporific of the night was provided in a lackluster version of Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations. The Bohemian absorbed much from his mentor Brahms, but not an ability to fashion interesting variations. The piece is like a trip to the countryside, charmingly rustic at first but, after what seems like eons, one realizes what a crashing bore it is there. If I had heard just one more repetition of that main fiddle tune… (there were actually passers-by at intermission on the balcony who made sport of this constant use of the same vapid melody). Not perhaps the fault of the ensemble, but certainly the responsibility of the conductor, this mindless fluff was extremely off-putting, greeted with half-hearted applause by the now restless crowd.

Pantheism is, by its very nature, a negation of the Christian God, but it also contains a surprisingly large volume of affirmations. The Glagolitic Mass is an amazingly powerful work, full of primitive yearning and barbaric emotion; wild in the extreme, a fine performance leaves the hearer breathless and hungry for spiritual fulfillment. It was thus positively criminal to present such a sanitized and anesthetized version as this one last evening. Gone was all of the fire, all of the passion. The organ solos of Catherine Edwards were emblematic of the wrongheadedness of the effort as a whole, her prim and proper phrasing relegating this mass (which Janacek wished to perform out of doors) to the realm of, well, church. Nothing could be further from the heart of this magical music. The quartet of singers, led once again by Ms. Domashenko, was more than adequate, but the chorus, less familiar with this language and its diction, seemed hesitant and timid. Bernstein used to speak of this work as a prime example of what he called “pity and power” and his recording of the piece in all of its atavistic frenzy is still the benchmark (there the organ solos are like what we imagine the music of Lon Chaney in the original “Phantom of the Opera” was supposed to be). Compared to that seminal performance, this version was just tepid. I would have had more excitement if I had stayed home and clipped my cats’ toenails.

Day Three: Punting Down the Moldau

Perhaps it was the day off between the second and third concerts, or maybe it was the buzz of the annual Lincoln Center Spring Gala, but the orchestra was much more animated this night. There was a festival atmosphere to the proceedings and I, as a critic (a shadow creature if ever there was one), sat in the row which served as the line of demarcation between the swells in black tie and the rabble in New York motley. The night had a pops feel to it, more New Year’s Eve in Vienna than Spring in Prague, the inclusion of a spirited rendition of the Dvorak Scherzo capriccioso the perfect curtain raiser.

Sarah Chang is already nineteen and this was the first time that I had ever heard her perform. There is not always an inverse ratio between the amount of publicity and the talent of the performer, and this fine artist deserves her incipient stardom. She won me over immediately by treating the Dvorak concerto as the full-blooded animal that it is, not as a throwaway piece of marginalia as it is sometimes presented. Ms. Chang dug in deeply and fully from the first notes. Her sound is gigantic, her tone warm and plush. Not only dexterous in the extreme, she imbues each phrase with it maximum emotive power. She was matched stroke for stroke by the orchestra. In the last movement, she charmingly danced about the stage in rhythm to her own playing, obviously enjoying the experience as much as we all were. This was spectacular playing of an unjustly neglected work. Perhaps her championing of this piece will breathe new life into its performance history. I am now looking forward to her traversal of the Berg next year with Masur. I have become an instant fan.

Wolfgang Sawallisch and his Philadelphia crew easily won the race with the Londoners down the Moldau (he led a complete Ma Vlast last evening at Carnegie), but they had a rather unfair advantage: while their river was smooth and flowing, Sir Colin’s water was decidedly choppy, complete with a strange hitch upon each repetition of the famous melody. Whereas Philadelphia’s interpretation was weighty, Maestro Davis opted for a much lighter, less dramatic approach. A matter of personal taste really; either interpretation is valid, but the Philadelphia sound was much more satisfying. As befitted the light mood of the evening, each small section of the work was applauded wildly (by contrast, the more erudite Carnegie audience held their applause until the end of each half of the program). But this was certainly the best concert of the three and the festival ended with all of us at least a little more familiar with the music of the homeland.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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