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Two Musical Credos

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
05/03/2017 -  & May, 4, 5, 6, 9, 2017
Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Gabriel Ebert (speaker), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Daniela Mack (mezzo), Joseph Kaiser (tenor), Eric Owens (bass)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (director), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor)

A. Gilbert (© Chris Lee)

“It is protest music, and Schoenberg was personally involved in the protest…”
Robert Craft
“Even in Auschwitz, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ was sung.”
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back

When Schoenberg realized that he must leave Germany he thought seriously of moving to Moscow, but demurred because of its harsh winters. Coming to America, he lived in Boston and New York but soon decamped for the Elysian fields of Los Angeles, settling on Rockingham in Brentwood in the same block that would later house Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson. Wracked by the guilt of the diaspora, he composed A Survivor from Warsaw in 1946-47. It stands as a testament to his faith and his humanity. The work is almost never performed so all praise should be heaped upon conductor Gilbert for this noble effort.

Three spoken/sung and two musical languages are at odds throughout, the strict twelve-tone system producing a six note motif immediately sent back as a distorted cracked mirror image. Attacking this imposed order is the percussion section, seemingly out of control in spots and ghastly frightening in others. The essay contains five minutes of terror and one concluding minute of righteousness and ultimate peace. An amazing and powerful utterance premiered in one of my favorite places – make sure you visit the Billy the Kid Museum – Albuquerque, New Mexico, and hardly ever presented since.

In fact, Survivor has not been mounted by the Philharmonic since the days of Pierre Boulez in 1974. Here, in his valedictory month, conductor Gilbert courageously selects this hidden gem for public consumption. Overall this was an admirable performance. The orchestra played smartly, catching that stark terror expressed by the instruments in a condensed depiction of Hell. The only fly in the ointment was the speaker. Firstly, he was miked heavily, so much so that his voice sounded as if it were emanating from another work entirely. More importantly, he did not sound at all threatening and his spoken German – which was supposed to be shouted but was actually only offered up tentatively – was ludicrously kittenish for a concentration camp guard.

However, one Gilbertian touch made for a strong performance effect. Towards the end of the piece the crowd of victims breaks out in almost modish singing of the She’ma Yisroel (the Jewish international anthem). For this seminal moment Maestro had his men’s chorus march down the aisles of David Geffen Hall and sing out proudly and defiantly the apex of their musical heritage. For those of us sitting in the aisle seats this was electrifying, what my Romanian “bubby”, who lost at least twenty of her close relatives in the camps, used to call “strong stuff”. A sincere thank you to Alan Gilbert.

I was away from the concert scene for the first few years of Gilbert’s tenure and so was unaware of his effect on the Philharmonic. There will be more to say when he conducts Das Rheingold in concert in early June, but it is important to note that the greatest accomplishment of this fine young maestro is that he is leaving the ensemble sounding much better than his predecessor did, a statement that can really not be made with any sincerity concerning any of the conductors of the past fifty years, not Boulez nor any of the “three M’s” (Mehta, Masur and Maazel). I finally rejoined the fray when listening to Gilbert lead a rather lackluster performance of Don Giovanni at the MET and then beginning to cover him at the then Avery Fisher Hall. A blogger friend of mine summed it up by stating that “Gilbert is good at presenting the new music, he just can’t conduct Brahms or Beethoven”.

The piece of music followed. When Sony executives had to decide how long to make their new invention, the compact disc, they sent a memo to their engineering staff that the implement needed to have the capacity to hold Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Sadly, this evening put another nail in maestro’s coffin as this reading of Beethoven’s 9th was rather puny and uninteresting. Not objectionable per se, just dull and pedestrian. The first movement was a bit rough in a good way, but afterwards the orchestra settled into a superficial funk that held sway until almost the conclusion of the piece, when the Allegro assai perked up to accomplish at least a touch of brilliance. I wrote a note in my program that read “as good as they get” and this tells the tale. Even with Gilbert’s significant improvements, this ensemble still has a way to go to rival its best competition. After a year’s hiatus, let’s hear what Jaap van Zweden can do!

Fred Kirshnit



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