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Opera Ultimae, Part One

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/13/2001 -  
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 9

Sarah Chang (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

The necrology of serious composers is remarkably colorful. Lully died when he stuck a conducting staff through his foot, Magnard had his house burned down by German soldiers, Granados expired in the waters surrounding the sunken S.S. Sussex, and Webern was murdered after the Second World War had ended by a trigger-happy American soldier. Alban Berg’s death from blood poisoning incurred from the bite of a wasp was especially poignant since he had only recently penned his last work, the gorgeous Violin Concerto, in response to the death of a young girl who had become the darling of the Viennese intelligentsia. Manon Gropius was the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius and her demise at the tender age of fifteen affected deeply this community which had unfortunately become accustomed to the early exit of many of its most precious residents in the era of the Great War and the equally devastating influenza epidemic which followed on its heels. Unlike Mozart including passages ruminating on his own imminent death in the Requiem (left unfinished due to his young expiration), Berg’s addition of a consolatory Bach chorale was strictly for the living audience who would be moved by the “memory of an angel”. It is only one of history’s tragic ironies that the piece can also be appreciated as an elegy for the composer himself.

Anton Bruckner’s view of death was entirely different from that of Berg, the modern, sophisticated apostate. For Bruckner, death was a new beginning, a promised reward for shuffling off this mortal coil, whose travails are so deeply explored in the pages of his final symphony. To say that the work is unfinished is to only scratch the surface of its composition, or perhaps to miss the mark altogether. The connection of the 9th to the Berg is strong enough that this same coupling of works will be presented later this season in Philadelphia, with Pinchas Zukerman and Simon Rattle. It will be fascinating to contrast their take on this thanatological subject matter to that of Ms. Chang and Maestro Masur.

Dylan Thomas notwithstanding, most works of art which describe the death of children are filled with an understandable anger. The Berg concerto, played in its performance history almost exclusively by middle-aged or older men, presents the emotional map straight out of Kubler-Ross. I am always praising younger artists for their mature conceptions; in the case of Sarah Chang, it is necessary to appreciate the significant contributions of youth. Having a woman of 20 interpret this piece is to open up new avenues of feeling and it was extraordinary for me, who thought at 20 that this was the singularly most profound work in all of music, to hear a fresh take on its main persona. Ms. Chang has a deep emotional attachment to this orchestra. She made her debut at Avery Fisher at the age of 9 (under Zubin Mehta) and, most recently, was touring in Germany with the Phil when the attack came on the World Trade Center. There was a pronounced sense of this bond of feeling, so necessary to the Berg, but what was different was that this exceptional performer managed to express a totally new layer of personality that fit the original creative circumstances like a glove. In addition to anger, denial and acceptance, there was also a sense of tenderness and especially playfulness missing from the versions of her male elders. This angel, like the deceased daughter of John Whiteside, was filled with childlike joy and innocent naturalness, “Who cried in goose, Alas” for all to hear.

Technically, Chang was quite confident in her statements, performing several adroit duets with herself by nailing the furious outbursts of left hand pizzicato while bowing a disarmingly sweeter melody, and participating in a delicate interplay with concertmaster Sheryl Staples. The orchestra, however, missed many opportunities to display the palette of complex colors which Berg so painstakingly employs and, although it could get by, used the vocabulary of the phrasebook rather than exhibiting any real musical fluency in this particular language. Masur, so narrow in his repertorial focus, was simply unfamiliar with the fabric of the piece and, left to his own devices, could only take a stab (albeit an educated one) at its stylistic framework.

Back in his element, Maestro led an outstanding rendition of the Bruckner. Masur is unbeatable in Central European music (from 1700 through 1900) and produced a positively noble account of this rich emotional landscape, expertly passing all of my signposts for a fine performance in the first and second movements. Especially praiseworthy was the overall sound of the ensemble (always a concern with this particular group), the blending of strings and brass opulent and full, the entrances of the woodwinds sharp and biting.
Towards the end of the misterioso, Stanley Drucker led his clarinets in glorious opposition to the thundering horde, the man in front of the tank in Tienamen Square, and the conductor heeded the Brucknerian warning nicht schleppend, propelling his forces headlong into oblivion at a brisk pace. The most impressive section was the scherzo, the staccato of the trumpets dramatically punctuating, the antiphonal pizzicato exchanges between first violins and violas the best justification for Masur’s odd platform positioning (he leaves the violas to hang out to dry in the front stage left) that I have heard in years. After these two movements, I thought how much more satisfying this reading was than the one just two weeks ago by his old orchestra (now under Blomstedt), the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

But the Philharmonic’s own personal bete noir reared its ugly head in the mighty adagio. A major gaff in the opening string passage introduced a significant loss of proper intonation throughout the movement. Especially in quiet passages, it became quickly obvious that this orchestra was badly out of tune and much of the composer’s subtle coloration was lost as a result. Still, their game struggle produced a strong movement interpretively, the dying away of horns, lower brass and signature Wagner tubas stirringly final. There was no applause long after Maestro had let down his arms. I like to think that this was because the audience was so moved by Bruckner’s unique cosmology, although more likely it was just an example of their anticipation of a more mainstream, loud finale. In either case, the silence worked well, framing this program about death, conceived almost two years ago, but eerily appropriate to post September 11 New York. Ms. Chang, in an interview about this concert, spoke of her desire to express beauty and serenity. She and her colleagues did a fine job of doing so, while staying within the bounds of good taste and rational sentiment.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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