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Elephant's Graveyard

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/10/2002 -  
Stewart Wallace: The Book of Five
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Symphony

American Composers Orchestra
Steven Sloane (conductor)

“I believe that my newly completed symphony will show the world that the use of atonality and ugly dissonance-at the expense of inspiration, form, expression, melody, and beauty-will result in ultimate disaster for the art of music.”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1952

There is much melancholy of operatic proportions in the life of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. A boy genius that never fully developed his potential, an expatriate outcast in a land of Philistines, a returning hero vilified in his own homeland, his most crushing disappointment was as a witness to the demise of his own art form. Growing up in the center of the most fruitful period in music history, this darling of the fin-de-siecle Austrian community was inflamed from early childhood with the stretching of the traditional bonds of harmonic theory and experienced firsthand the heady premieres of the works of Mahler, Schoenberg and Strauss in the hotbed of musical revolution. As he matured artistically, however, Korngold could not get past the peculiarly haunting Viennese concept that his world was rapidly passing into oblivion (this is one of the themes of the film “King’s Row” for which he wrote the score) and his steadfast clinging to nostalgia at the expense of progress left him anachronistic, perfumed and bitter (his character steps right out of Rosenkavalier). After a personally enforced banishment from serious art music for orchestra until the defeat of Nazism, this remarkable repressed volcano erupted with a vengeance and produced the concerti for violin and cello, the latter an extension of a piece from the 1946 Bette Davis film “Deception”, in short order and began the creative process which would lead in 1952 to the Symphony in F Sharp Major, a key signature fittingly dwelling in the shadows, the proposed Symphony # 10 of Mahler its only prominent, if ghostly, resident. The irony here is that with the benefit of historical perspective, we can judge that Korngold was actually correct: his last works are virtually the final statements of a dying art whose decay has not fertilized anything fresh and beautiful. Programming this powerful symphonic statement on the same concert with a 2002 world premiere was thus an especially interesting juxtaposition for the American Composers Orchestra and a significant inaugural address by their new music director Steven Sloane.

Replacing Dennis Russell Davies would be a daunting task for anyone, but Mr. Sloane’s debut concert was far from impressive. Perhaps the Korngold was the wrong score for this ensemble. It requires a large scope and a significant amount of lushness in the strings as well as the ability to formulate and execute the grand, sweeping gesture. None of this was in evidence in an essentially wan reading of what should have been a Cinemascope and Technicolor production. For example, the scherzo, so reminiscent in its expansive phrasing of the Jupiter section from The Planets, was disappointingly thin and hollow, a timid utterance when only a bold will do, the persona less Erroll Flynn and more Arnold Stang. The normally beautiful adagio was only a shadow of itself, the ACO strings playing Haydn when they should have been thinking Rachmaninoff. The big, boffo ending (at least it was envisioned this way) fell flat on its face and was greeted with only the proximate amount of tepid applause that it deserved. It was truly a shame to experience the Korngold thus: the work is so grand and so seldom played; this type of uninvested performance will never elevate it beyond the footnote stage. Having heard this group play much more lustily several times before, I place the blame squarely on the new conductor’s shoulders: there was simply no spirit in this rendition.

Icebreaker did not turn out to be a rapper after all but rather an electrified British contemporary combo. My companion and I had prudently moved to the back of the hall (there were many empty rows from which to choose) at the sight of so many amplifiers and the volume level instantly confirmed the wisdom of our decision. In fact, a short wall of hard plastic or safety glass had been erected on the stage to protect the ears of the orchestra from the artificial emanations of the guest ensemble. The Wallace work was surprisingly tonal (Korngold had not predicted the counter reformation) and not surprisingly vacuous. Using a Petroushka feel, right down to snare drum borders between the tableaux, it essentially alternated sections of orchestral writing with movements of plugged-in Celtic rock with little sense of integration between the two. This was not so much fusion as fission. The middle movement was Mr. Wallace’s response to the events of September 11, the predictably overdone use of chimes on the stage and brass fanfares from the rafters as well as the repetitious transparencies in the strings totally forgivable under the circumstances (all of our heads were in a different place in those days). The work as a whole, however, seemed to go on forever, the maudlin nature of the last movement perfect as the accompaniment to a credit roll for a movie on Lifetime or Oxygen. After a while, I began to realize the real reason for that plastic barrier: it was actually a shield designed to protect Icebreaker from the mediocrity oozing from the orchestra.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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