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The Adventures of Baron Muenchenhausen

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/15/2002 -  02/16/02 02/17/02
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 4
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 9
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony # 39
John Harbison: Symphony # 3
Arnold Schoenberg: Piano Concerto
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Charles Ives: Three Places in New England
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 7
Gyorgy Ligeti: Lontano
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 4

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Peter Serkin (piano)
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)

Much water has flowed beneath the Rainbow Bridge since James Levine agreed last year to bring his Munich Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall on an exclusive basis going forward. One of those innumerable Manhattan subway tunnels must lead directly to the Bavarian capital, as all three major symphony orchestras there have a direct connection to Gotham City. The Bavarian State Orchestra is now led by Zubin Mehta, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic and the brother of its current general manager. Levine, head honcho at the Metropolitan Opera, is the principal conductor of the Munich Phil, and, in a move which directly affected both musical capitals, Lorin Maazel recently gave up the directorship of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra to take the reins of the troubled Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. Add to all of this Levine’s newly announced acceptance of the directorship of the venerable Boston Symphony and something has got to give.

Conventional wisdom now is that Jimmy will not renew in Munich, throwing in his trademark towel even though he is still under his initial contract only recently inked in 1999. At the Carnegie press conference last year, outgoing executive director Franz Xaver Ohnesorg boasted that they had signed that exclusive agreement with the Maestro to bring the Munich Philharmonic to New York (and nowhere else in America) on a regular basis. Now that the 2002-03 schedule has been announced, it is significant to note the absence of this ensemble, even though Mr. Levine is a featured artist next season, conducting nine evenings of his MET forces. The dirty little secret is that his group is the least competent orchestra in the German city and, for all of his rebuilding skills, Levine is simply too impatient (or discouraged) to continue on there. Even in the controversial days of Sergiu Celibidache, a maestro with the personality and sensitivity of Howard Stern, the Munich Philharmonic, while enjoying a modicum of fame, suffered from some rather sloppy problems of execution. Mr. Levine went there with the announced intention of bringing these dedicated musicians up to the next level, but, for whatever reason, seems to be aborting his mission rather prematurely. With rumors of their compromised quality furiously circulating in the New York press, the Munich Philharmonic is still one of the hottest tickets on the street. We all love Levine in this town and even forgive him for the Three Tenors.

Looking Backward I

“…Looking at the smallest inner circle doesn’t tell you how far the concentric circles radiating out from such a circle will eventually spread, the formula pi r squared holding for the biggest as for the tiniest.”

Gustav Mahler to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Nov. 1900

The process of creation for the Symphony # 4 was an unusual one. Mahler began with the last movement already composed, as he had originally meant to employ it as the finale to his previous opus until, upon reflection, he excised it based on considerations of length (the entire 4th is only a tad longer than the first movement of the 3rd). Additionally, this song with orchestra had initially been penned for the Wunderhorn and so the composer had been living with it for some time. Going back to the beginning, Mahler had the sounds of the gentle, childlike wish fulfillment in his ear and fashioned his quietest symphony based on its innocent world-view. The work as a whole then follows the Baroque variation suite concept of presenting elaborative material before the main theme, introducing the central subject only at the end (the use of scordatura, or deliberate mistuning, in the second movement is also a Baroque device). The result is Mahler’s purest and most beautiful orchestral essay. The preponderance of three quarter time and that curious Viennese emphasis on the second beat evoke the world of Schubert, especially the rocking movements of the middle symphonies.

Levine’s mentor came to Mahler quite late in life but still produced the finest 4th in the history of recording. George Szell was the master at presenting this piece as an essay about the contrast between dotted and disjointed rhythm and smooth, lyrical melodic line. Of course, the Cleveland Orchestra was a great instrument on which to play (he had been the prime mover in making it so) and Szell created in his brief flirtation with Mahler some of the most gorgeous sonorities in memory. His protégé has no such luxury with his current band, the sound of the Munich ensemble flat and dull, lackluster and uninteresting. Levine did little with the material, the lines between methods of expression blurred, their meanings nebulous. Even more disconcerting was the prevalence of “dead” moments, frozen sections of time where the overall effect was that everything had raveled and the orchestra should be stopped and re-evaluated on the spot. Mahler’s Fourth walks a fine line between sweetly ravishing beauty and phantasmagoric ugliness and a great performance will concentrate on one or the other of these aesthetic worlds (or both in the same reading, as I once heard Chailly successfully pull off). The sadly pedestrian Munich Phil is not capable of either extreme and the result was especially disappointing to Levine fanatics who know that the irregular rhythms of Mahler’s own heart beat in his chest.

The ”Great” C Major, the Mahler’s sunny sibling on the circle of fifths, fared somewhat better, although it is difficult to get past that amateurish sound. This was a highly spirited performance, done in the most correct modern revisionist style of brisk tempo markings with an orchestra three times the size of any that Schubert had ever envisioned (he never heard the piece; it was discovered among his posthumous effects). Maestro finally found the lilt necessary to communicate the second movement of the Mahler; unfortunately he didn’t achieve it until the third movement of the Schubert. His quirky statements of the famous melodies seemed precious and portrayed Schubert as a fully developed romantic when he was actually a classicist. As an orchestra builder, however temporary the assignment, Levine might begin by assembling the clarinet section (and the personnel manager) and handing them all their walking papers. The brass fared only slightly better, but at least didn’t wobble continuously and can come in and go out reasonably well together. Perhaps the only reason that I enjoyed the Schubert was that I had already grudgingly accepted the junior school sound that so shocked me in the Mahler. With two long concerts to follow (at least they are not stingy with their time), I had best adjust my ears accordingly.

Looking Backward II

“It is perhaps necessary to show also some melodies of my later period, especially of the composition with twelve tones, which has earned me the title of constructionist, engineer, mathematician, etc., meaning that these compositions are produced exclusively by the brain without the slightest participation of something like a human heart. As an example from my later period, I quote here the beginning of my Piano Concerto…”

Arnold Schoenberg, “Heart and Brain in Music”

In his later years, Schoenberg was that most rare of all species: a Southern Californian who didn’t drive. He enlisted a young musician whom he met through his friend George Gershwin to convey him from his home on Rockingham in Brentwood (I wonder how many of the gawkers at the Simpson house bothered to notice the Schoenberg abode) to his various business dealings and tennis matches. The upshot of all of their conversations was the idea for a piano concerto in the Romantic style, a conscious turn towards the nostalgic. The accommodating pianist was Oscar Levant and, although he did not receive the honor of the premiere (that went to longtime associate Edward Steuermann), he spent a great deal of time trying to insure that the older man’s diaspora be as comfortable and productive as possible (Levant had earlier tried to broker the Violin Concerto to Heifetz but with no success). The Piano Concerto came at a time when Schoenberg was evolving a return to Viennese tradition, a process begun with the invention of the dodecaphonic system, and it is his most openly 19th century work. Perhaps Mitsuko Uchida said it best when she pointed out that its beginning is a Brahms waltz.

Peter Serkin and Mr. Levine are two of the greatest interpreters of the music of Schoenberg performing today and so it was no surprise that this version was sensitive and highly musical. Mr. Serkin, whose father was a member of the Second Viennese School as a young pianist, has shown exceptional sensitivity for this type of complex expression since his teenaged years. His is a skillfully refined conception of the piece, a very gentle opening leading to an intensely dramatic middle solo section as exciting as any Beethovenian cadenza. His occasional lapses of memory banished by the judicious use of music and a page turner, Serkin seemed confident and assured of the import of this music, even if the audience was essentially unreceptive (Maestro had to keep the soloist on stage after his reading for any chance at a fleeting second bow). Levine is an expert in the arcane harmonic language and subtle vocabulary of artistic communication necessary to accompany this superb music successfully, although several of his forces’ slovenly exits made me wince.

The best performance of the evening was reserved for the Harbison, which, like the Mahler, begins with its ending, although this trendy composer chooses to intone that ending at the outset of the work and then attempt to explain how we all got to this particular dramatic point, a standard post-war Hollywood device (cf. D.O.A. or Sunset Boulevard). The whole reminded of Schoenberg’s parody of the film music industry, entitled Music for a Cinematographic Scene, as a not very interesting gamut of emotions was portrayed in rather obvious sections (one is described in the accompanying program notes, written by the composer, as “…behaves like depression…”). The resulting vapidity was punctuated with a Sharks versus Jets Latin beat (you know that the author’s creativity will be only marginal when there are three different members of the marimba family on the stage) and seemed as fleeting and hollow as this man’s splashy The Great Gatsby which strutted and fretted on the MET stage recently. It appeared that a large chunk of the total rehearsal time had been given over to this marginal music and Mr. Harbison was on hand to receive the accolades of the crowd (and had previously given the pre-concert talk).

There had been some rather radical personnel changes after the first concert, the unsatisfying concertmaster of the previous night replaced and the especially offending solo clarinetist nowhere to be found, but the Mozart and the Strauss still suffered from colorless and unpolished playing. The third concert is the most eclectic of the lot (this series has had everything save a Gabrieli canzone and a Piazzolla tango), so it remains to be seen what this ragtag bunch can do with pieces as disparate as those of Beethoven and Ligeti.

Looking Backward III

“…never mind the exact notes or the right notes, they’re always a nuisance…”

Charles Ives to Nicolas Slonimsky, May 5, 1931

Charles Ives’ overriding emotion when dealing with the commercial musical world was frustration. Although he knew that he was creating significant and revolutionary masterpieces, he had a deuce of a time getting anyone to listen. Fate certainly seemed to be against him when his most promising possibility came to nought after Mahler took an interest in the Symphony # 3 and returned to Europe with it with the glimmer of an intention of performing it there (he undoubtedly felt that it was much too modern for the New York Philharmonic) only to expire a short time later. Ives, who taught an entire generation of insurance men how to get their feet in people’s doors, could never crack the code of acceptable concert performance (he labeled Mahler’s rival at the New York Symphony Walter God-Damrosch). He was therefore delighted when Nicolas Slonimsky premiered the Three Places in New England in Boston and then set sail almost immediately for Europe to present this amazing work there. Perhaps the quality of the performance was less than expert, but at least audiences had the opportunity to hear these highly inventive and difficult reflections of three bygone incidents: the Civil War, Ives’ father’s experimentation with marching band sonorities, and the composer’s own magical honeymoon with his charmingly named bride Harmony.

There was a great deal of mud at Putnam’s Camp this day and the Munich players, led by their war-weary commander, were forced to slog their way through it as best they could. This middle place in New England is notoriously difficult to perform and I have heard many more deficient readings than proficient ones. What was odd today was that the lack of clarity extended to the outer movements as well and the normally buoyant music, inspired by popular and military songs of the 1860’s, was so spiritless as to not only fail to carry the day but actually to bring down this version to the level of the lugubrious. This was in all respects a terrible performance. One should give credit to Levine who, as an American conductor of a European orchestra, chose to program three works of native music (counting the Schoenberg), however, to present this folk-inspired classic without its rambunctiousness was a great disservice to the cause.

The poor oboist at the beginning of the Beethoven, like a prima donna who trips and falls upon her first entrance onto the stage, had to attempt to present the initial solo after one of the most embarrassingly uncoordinated openings that I have ever witnessed live. This rendition was in trouble from the outset and it appeared that the young timpanist was lagging almost an entire beat behind. However, as I looked closer I realized that he alone was diligently following Levine’s lackadaisical beat, the rest of the ensemble moving along at their own individual paces. It would be simply mean-spirited at this juncture to delineate all of the miscues and gaffs that haunted this movement, but it is important to try and paint the image of a conductor who didn’t even seem to be affected by them. The funeral march was a complete throwaway and this seemed even more offensive than any technical shortcomings that had preceded it. Levine did rally both himself and the troops for a fast finale, but its lack of inner propulsion left us all only slightly uplifted. The entire experience was like watching a car wreck.

A year ago when I first saw the program for this concert I was struck with the juxtaposition of the Ives with another of the most difficult pieces to perform in the literature. Ligeti’s Lontano is extremely hard on the individual players because they must intone distinct notes whose only mates are realized far away in the orchestra and on the spectrum of octaves (for example, the bass tuba and the higher strings of the first violin). There is, as a result, no frame of reference around which the player may ground his or her note, no way to reassure themselves aurally that they are producing the correct sound (this is the same challenge as in Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra). This piece was well above the level of execution of these hard-working but essentially limited players and its inclusion at a Carnegie Hall event (and the resulting limp presentation) seemed little more than an act of hubris on the part of their director.

When he emerged for the Brahms, Maestro received the most tepid applause that I have ever heard for a Levine performance in this town. More than one patron expressed to me their sadness in seeing this icon of the orchestra pit reduced to these shabby circumstances and, as he mounted the podium for one last subpar go round, the only image I could conjure in my mind was that of Anthony Quinn whooping like an Indian as he enters the wrestling ring in the last scene of Requiem for a Heavyweight. How the mighty have fallen!

I suppose that one could dismiss the entire Munich experience as a noble experiment that failed, but Levine’s early exit makes me think it more a dalliance between an aristocrat and a kitchen maid. This European adventure, for which he was extremely well paid, would at least have had the benefit of making the conductor sadder but wiser but for the fact that his recent acceptance of the post in Boston indicates that his ambition still outranks his stamina. He has done it all at the opera; perhaps it is time to move on. If he persists in trying to be the force majeure both there and at Symphony Hall, his painfully obvious low energy level will only allow for watered down performances at both venues in future.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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