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A Tale of Two Concerts

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/15/2019 -  
Valerie Coleman: Umoja
Béla Bartόk: Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119
Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (music director and conductor)

H. Grimaud (© Matt Hennek)

“In 1981 a recording of An Alpine Symphony, made with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, became the first work ever to be pressed on the compact disc format.”
“Last evening I was very impressed with her command of the much more difficult Rachmaninoff. Sure and strong-handed, she delivered a very powerful first movement, punctuated with personal moments of rubato. When playing these concerti, one is up against the composer himself, who recorded them all, with good sound, in Philadelphia in the 1930’s. Ms. Grimaud’s nobility and grace matched even this mighty competition.”
Fred Kirshnit, ConcertoNet, 6/23/2001

As a young percussionist I used to dream of cranking the wind machine in An Alpine Symphony (there is a thunder sheet as well!) and, although I never had the chance, it still impresses me as one of the great moments in 20th century music. Performances of this leviathan are gigantic spectacles and normally as rare as the sightings of snow leopards, but this season the work appears not once but twice in the New York season. Certainly something to be eagerly anticipated.

When Arnold Schoenberg was approached to write the score for the film The Good Earth, the producer attempted to entice him by stating that there were such exciting elements to arrange as a plague of locusts and a starving population. Schoenberg declined the job, stating “with all of this going on, why do you need music?” Valerie Coleman’s Umoja began life as a piece for women’s chorus, then morphed into a composition for wind quintet (Ms. Coleman has a flautist background) and is now making its rounds as a full-fledged orchestral composition. It reminded me in spots of the music that the children sang during my time working in Zambia. A mere bagatelle, suffering from the elephantiasis of a full orchestra led by a man who never met a fortissimo that he did not love, the piece quickly devolved into a pale imitation of a soundtrack from a 1930’s Depression era epic, a dustbowl movie. Not my cup of tea.

Hélène Grimaud lives just up the parkway where she enjoys the country air and tranquility and also raises wolves. I have had the pleasure of hearing some of her finest work (see above) and an occasional misstep – a botched Ravel in Philadelphia comes to my mind’s ear now and then. Her Bartόk this night was a triumph – I cannot remember an audience ovation so vociferous and elongated at its conclusion, at least not since the exit of James Levine.

Ms. Grimaud dazzled with her quickness and solid enunciation, hitting only one wrong note (at least in these ears) in the entire piece. Her Adagio religioso was emotionally shattering and as intense as one would ever hope could happen at a live concert. Also, her fast passages, including the electric ending of the piece, were terrifically heart-stopping. The sold-out crowd responded with such a long and vociferous ovation as to give the heart of a critic a triumphant boost. We should all have gone home at this juncture, but sadly there was more to come.

Now ubiquitous in New York, Yannick Nézet-Séguin did not impress at a recent performance by his Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (cf. “The Loud Family” in these recent pages). Tonight’s Strauss opus can easily be projected too fortissimo and so this critic approached the second half of this concert rather gingerly.

The performance was wracked with miscues. Early on the brass section leaves the stage in order to sound calls from the distant reaches of the heights of the summit. Sadly these pronouncements were cursed with flubbed notes and sloppy embouchure, Afterwards the players returned to their seats rather sheepishly – a bad start to the journey.

The remainder of the presentation was fraught with peril – I suppose this could be considered an acoustical reminder of the dangers of climbing in the Alps – and more than once we were reminded of lurking cacophony, always a phenomenon to be avoided like the plague. Overall this was a very loud and boisterous performance presented – warts and all – for our listening pleasure. Since Maestro is now the director of the Metropolitan Opera and still has a concert arrangement with the Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain (they will be presenting the Bruckner Fourth here next month) there is much of him for us to process (he is also appearing as a pianist, including accompanying Joyce DiDonato in Winterreise in December). Let us hope that there are considerably fewer “chalk on the blackboard” effects going forward.

Mahler climbed mountains (quite literally) while Strauss simply wrote about the experience, however both composers were expert in conjuring the exhilaration and nurturing it into the concert hall. Here’s hoping for more professional performances as we strive for the summit.

Fred Kirshnit



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