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A Decade of Excellence

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/18/2002 -  
Serge Prokofieff: from Romeo and Juliet
Bela Bartok: Viola Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 2

Kyle Armbrust (viola)
Juilliard Orchestra
Kurt Masur (conductor)

At the conclusion of the interval last evening, Joseph Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, honored Kurt Masur with a citation and sincere thanks for ten years of continuous service, both educational and inspirational, to the academy’s fine orchestra. The rejuvenated kapellmeister, only recently recovered from a kidney transplant, looked especially fit and did an extraordinary job of transferring his own high energy level onto these budding international ensemble members. Although his reign at the Philharmonic may have been stormy and is ending with a performance of a few bars of “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?”, his association with this student band (and the corresponding group at the Manhattan School) has been first rate. Beginning this valedictory concert with a bitingly exciting Montagues and Capulets, he coaxed and cajoled (and apparently threatened, as he said in his remarks following the presentation of his award) the highest level of committed play from his youthful charges.

Tibor Serly was an obscure Hungarian-American violist whose fifteen minutes revolve around seventeen measures of the Piano Concerto # 3 of Bela Bartok, which he orchestrated after the composer literally left them incomplete on his deathbed. Bartok raced with the clock to write this piece for his wife, Ditta Pasztory, so that she would have a vehicle with which to eke out a living after his impending demise would leave her penniless (like all of Bartok’s financial schemes, this one failed as well, the world premiere being given in Philadelphia by his friend Gyorgy Sandor instead). The labor of love consumed his last days and so he left unfinished a commission from William Primrose for a Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Serly, a former student of Bartok at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, was uniquely qualified to complete the project, rescuing the 13 extant pages of manuscript (if he had been a pupil of Schoenberg instead, he would have had to destroy one of them) and fleshing out a concerto in the style of his mentor. Later in life, Serly transcribed the work for cello and orchestra (he’s a bit like that music teacher who used to buttonhole people in the early days of the 19th century and present them with his card, which read “Friend of Beethoven”) and there is even a version, championed by Yo-Yo Ma, for a modern mongrel viola da gamba. The original teacher/student goulash was featured on this program, but was intoned so hesitantly by soloist Kyle Armbrust that little of its unique spirit came through. Undoubtedly nervous in his New York debut, Armbrust concentrated exclusively on not making any mistakes (an effort only mildly satisfactory) and never approached the essentially wild and primitive center of the piece. Even in the allegro vivace, a good old-fashioned country fiddler’s section, he was shackled by his gingerly approach and, since this is a student concert, it occurs to me that it is his teachers who are at fault. Considerations of professionalism notwithstanding, they must allow this man the opportunity to let his hair down and breathe, otherwise the music withdraws in favor of empty technique. I am hopeful that in time, he will realize his emotional investiture and rise above this academic approach.

The reading of the Beethoven was truly remarkable. Masur shines in the central European and endowed this performance with the touch of the master. The larghetto was especially rhythmical, the infectious melody rising and falling in the most charming of manners. It was easy to forget that this was an amateur orchestra, the tightly enunciated tutti sound so perfect in its classical proportions (the Munich Philharmonic couldn’t play like this even in their dreams). Maestro pointed out that, although he is leaving New York, he will continue to encounter these fine musicians as they join the great orchestras of the world. Hopefully they can continue to make music together for many years to come.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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