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Tempest in a Tea Party

New York
Carnegie Hall
12/09/1999 -  
Claude Debussy: Nuages et Fetes from Three Nocturnes
Witold Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

Itzhak Perlman (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

Over the past few years Seiji Ozawa has become the most celebrated victim in Massachusetts since Sacco and Vanzetti. His troubles really began with The Great Nutcracker War, as famous in Boston as The Big Dig, when he took his orchestra to Asia three years ago during the months of November and December, leaving the city without a season of Christmas music performances. Many of the Brahmins complained bitterly, some even stating that what was the point of having a symphony orchestra if they weren't around for the only concert of the year about which anyone really cared. Then he dared to assert his leadership at the Tanglewood festival, replacing certain key personnel who were beloved by the local press. The crushing blow came from the most bizarre of sources, the Wall Street Journal of all places, whose "culture critic" wrote an article claiming that the BSO had lost all professionalism and that their sound was devoid of all proper intonation and balance. My New York brethren were quick to join the feeding frenzy and lambasted Maestro Ozawa at every turn, even when they did not actually attend his Carnegie concerts. This avalanche of disrespect eventually led to Seiji abandoning his lifelong artistic project and signing on with the Vienna State Opera. Now in his lame duck administration, he is touring with his troops once again, proving all of his critics wrong at every stop along the way.

I was curious about this press vendetta against the BSO and so journeyed up to Tanglewood this past summer to hear them play in a relaxed setting. The sound of the orchestra as well as their technical capabilities seemed perfectly adequate, perhaps not the Boston Symphony of the Leinsdorf era, but really quite an exceptional performing body. Of course during the summer there are a lot of "covers", young players who substitute for their elders during prime vacation season, but still my overall impression was a good one. My research into the premature demise of this great institution continued on Thursday night with a visit by the regulars to Carnegie Hall.

My excitement mounted as I approached 56th Street and saw the little truck which bears the BSO logo. It is not a tractor-trailer like the Philadelphia Orchestra's, but rather a "straight job" of about 20 feet. Its presence at the backstage entrance and the large crowd of tuxedoed smokers huddled around the door was a good visual ingress into the world of this American institution. The appearance of Seiji in his blue jeans capped a wonderful prelude to an evening of fine music making.

Any doubts as to the professionalism of this group were quickly dispelled by the wonderful performance of the first two of the Three Noctunes. The last, and only vocal, of the three, Sirenes, was omitted from the program (I guess the chorus couldn't fit in that little truck). Ozawa immediately created a gossamer universe of sound for Nuages, the solo violin of Malcolm Lowe blending beautifully with the viola and cello sections in that marvelously sustained lyric passage. The tension and pacing of Fetes were positively orgasmic as Ozawa proved that his players understand the implied rhythms of this amazing tour-de-force and brought us all to a fever pitch of excitement just before the necessary release of this internalized pounding figure that we all experience but do not actually hear until it is finally played by the snare drum (one of the greatest moments in all of music). I noticed that there were virtually no other critics in attendance so I suppose that I need to be the one to break the news: there is nothing wrong with this orchestra.

Glenn Gould used to say that the Beethoven Violin Concerto consisted of "a lot of guts and one good tune". Tchaikovsky consciously modeled his concerto after the Beethoven and found, to his disappointment, that the original dedicatee, Leopold Auer, thought so little of the work that he refused to premiere it. This phenomenon was not unique, as the Piano Concerto # 1, for fifty years afterwards the most beloved of all the solo works with orchestra, suffered the same fate throughout Europe, no one wanting to tarnish their reputation by being the first to play it until (see how this comes full circle) Hans von Buelow took it to Boston for its unheralded world premiere. But somehow Tchaikovsky is able to present these minimal ideas with their interminable repetitions and still produce a memorable evening at the concert hall. Itzhak Perlman is an amazing violinist, possessing a golden tone and an entire palette of color with which to work. I did have the sense that this was not his best performance of this piece but rather just one of thousands that he has pulled off and yet his playing is so spectacular that the overall effect is positively stunning. However, after the dreadful Lutoslawski, slavishly imitative and devoid of any semblance of even one musical idea, the Tchaikovsky, with its one thematic nugget per movement, seemed rather tedious as well. The orchestra and soloist played well throughout and so the evening was still enjoyable, but I would have preferred some more meat as my main course. Actually, excluding the Debussy, everything about this concert was first-rate except the music.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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