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Half a Loaf

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/26/2019 -  & October 17, 2019 (Munich)
Jorg Widmann: Con brio
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.77
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Munich Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev (music director and conductor)

L. Kavakos (© Marco Borggreve)

“Mravinsky subjected me to a real interrogation on every bar, on my every idea, demanding an answer to any doubts that had arisen in him. But by the fifth day of our collaboration, I understood that his method was undoubtedly correct. A conductor should not just sing like a nightingale.”
Shostakovich on the premiere of his Fifth Symphony

Three observations on the Shostakovich in question:
Whenever it is performed in New York there are a significant number of Russians in the audience. They seem absolutely transfixed throughout.
The work is emblematic of the troubles in the Soviet Union during World War II. Like the 7th – the “Leningrad” Symphony – smuggled to America on microfilm, it portrays in stark turns the anguish and suffering of a generation in a series of highly exciting moments, like a Tom Clancy novel (engendering the Bartók parody in his Concerto for Orchestra). Shostakovich was acclaimed throughout the free world and even made the cover of Time magazine, an artifact that can sometimes be seen for sale on the streets of New York even today.
Although I have had a very musical life, I have never been as excited as when I performed the tympani part in a student performance of this powerful, powerful piece.

In attendance this night was the renowned music critic Jay Nordlinger. We were able to sit together and this was fitting for a hearing of Widmann. Years ago Jay and I created a concert category entitled the “Oomp”, which stood for Obligatory Opening Modern Piece (I guess that makes us the Oomp Papas). The genre has grown exponentially and no self‑respecting concert hall would even consider a program without such an opening gambit. Herr Widmann seems to have won some sort of lottery on 57th street, as many of his musical vignettes open Carnegie programs this season. Con brio is typical of contemporary morays as it seems to evoke the grade Z monster movies of the 1970’s without any of the brio and much of the schlock. Did the Munich ensemble play it well? Well, as well as could be expected!

Much more of a disappointment was the phlegmatic effort by Leonidas Kavakos. He can play the Brahms in his sleep, but probably should not expose the public to his condescendingly typical interpretation. While the technical wizardry is certainly there, or at least lurking somewhere in the background, there is little sense of individual interpretation, no concept of what Kavakos adds to the presentation of such a major work in the repertoire. Neither lush nor particularly passionate, this rendition seemed to only wish to state that the fiddler knew his notes, not that he particularly identifies with such a collection of emotions. His staid demeanor throughout was oddly condescending and his ruffles and flourishes were ordinary at best. What was missing was the passion and bravado inherent in the score. On the plus side, there were sections of the Adagio that were allowed to flourish, making the remainder of this dispassionate traversal seem even less profound. Blasphemy!

Sadly, personal business necessitated that I leave the hall at intermission and so cannot even presume to judge the performance of the Shostakovich. Please read the aforementioned Mr. Nordlinger to discover its strengths and weaknesses.

Fred Kirshnit



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