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Music in Time of War

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/15/2023 -  
Yevhen Stankovych: Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Flute and Strings
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, op.15
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”, op.95

Michailo Sosnovsky (Flute), Stanislav Khristenko (Piano)
Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, Theodore Kuchar (Principal Conductor)
Liev Schreiber (Host)

S. Khristenko, T. Kuchar (© Chris Lee)

It does not often occur that a cavernous auditorium (in this instance, Isaac Stern Auditorium) is filled to the brim for the debut performance of an unknown orchestra, conductor, and a little‑known soloist. But such was the case with the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, a debut that had to do more with politics and the world situation than music. Supposedly this orchestra’s American tour was planned well before the war on Ukraine was declared by the Russian government, but this specific concert in one of the most prominent concert halls in the United States was arranged after the onset of hostilities. I doubt it is necessary to describe this war’s atrocities: what is important to remember is the ever‑present anguish that the musicians from the orchestra are confronted with every day of their American tour. Their dear ones, both those fighting and those unarmed, are being killed at the same time as their musician colleagues with all their might are trying to send a message of music and hope. When we listen to these musicians say that they think of their loved ones in Ukraine every minute of the day, we know that there is not an ounce of exaggeration in their voices.

The program booklets contained an insert with a message from Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine, with a plea for any help we can bring to this ill‑fated nation and its battered citizens. Before the music started, the hall went dark and after a moment on the video screen, we received pre‑recorded greetings from President Zelensky. That was followed by a short introduction by Liev Schreiber, actor, director, screenwriter and producer, who offered a few words of introduction. We were once again reminded of the brutalities of war and of the need to help the Ukrainian victims who are often without power, heat, electricity and a roof over their heads.

At the moment of appearing on stage, the orchestra received an instantaneous standing ovation, which seems now to be a custom in showing our affection for the people who bring to us a share of their culture and humanity. The musicians appear to be a very young ensemble and it was not clear if the musicians we saw on stage were the whole or only a part of the original, pre‑war ensemble. The orchestra was conducted by Ukrainian-American Theodore Kuchar, born in New York.

Their program featured a sample of music by a leading Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych and two large symphonic works by Brahms and Dvorák. Stankovych, today nearly 81 years old, composed his Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Flute and Strings in 1982 and with this performance it received its Carnegie Hall premiere. That does not mean I have not heard previously similar sounds and similar effects in works by other Eastern European, mainly Polish, composers. We can consider their influence and accept that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Similarly to Henryk Górecki, author of the famed Third Symphony with soprano solo, Stankovych also utilizes juxtaposition of harsh sounding, ”sandpaper effects” with moments of modal chorales. He adds a solo flute, here capably played by the orchestra’s principal Michailo Sosnovsky, which alternates with the string outbursts and sometimes joins them. This work, upon first hearing, demonstrated compositional skills and one found many emotional moments, but overall it seemed to me that material utilized stretched for too long and that modernist/romantic exchange continued for too long.

In the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 we heard Ukrainian-born Stanislav Khristenko who now makes his home in the United States and enjoys a career as a soloist in recitals and with symphony orchestras. His bio indicates that recently he also took up conducting. I appreciated that both Mr. Kuchar and Mr. Khristenko adopted a rather vigorous approach to that youthful score and infused it with energy and temperament. There was also a forward motion in the middle Adagio, which is heart-wrenching, spiritual rumination on life by a still very young composer, here deeply affected by the mental demise of his idol Robert Schumann. Mr. Khristenko surely is a formidable pianist–if one had doubts, one needed only to wait for his encore–but I was not totally convinced by his interpretative ideas, by his wayward phrasing and too‑subtle sound. But I think that I was least convinced by at‑times limping, undisciplined phrasing. The dynamic range he was obtaining from his Steinway was huge, as if someone was cranking up the volume, but it was not that rich, warm sound I would associate with the Gornostayeva/Babayan school that Mr. Khristenko claims for his pianistic influence. I wasn’t convinced with Mr. Khristenko’s little liberal phrasing in the 2nd movement: too often the Romantic rhythmic freedom and elasticity deteriorated into waywardness. There were also numerous moments of less-than-ideal collaboration between the soloist and orchestra with instances of disunity (insufficient rehearsal time or something more severe?). Yet, things vastly improved in the Finale Rondo: Allegro non troppo, which was taken at the very brisk tempo , with vivacity, liveliness and sheer joy of playing. Here one could sense a true excitement and even orchestra showed its best qualities.

Khristenko showed his barn‑storming virtuosity in an encore: the Vladimir Horowitz arrangement of Carmen Variations, where he was skillfully imitating the master’s little tricks and showing astounding technical command. Yet, even there his temperament took the better of him and the coda was taken in such speed that all clarity was lost and buried under the thunder of sounds.

After intermission came one of the most popular works in the symphonic repertory, Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony. It is always a risk for the lesser‑known orchestras to present the staples of the symphonic repertory on stages where the same works may be played a day earlier or a day later by major world‑class ensembles. But even those smaller–also in size–orchestras have to show how good they are and present a difficult repertory. So here, in Dvorák, the Ukrainian musicians and their Ukrainian-American maestro showed their enthusiasm, discipline and unity of purpose if not always an ideal instrumental excellence. The tempi were reasonable, rather on the vigorous side, and there was energy and character. I liked the tenderness and yet the lack of sentimentality in the Largo, and the vibrancy of the Scherzo. By any other measure it could be considered a well-thought-out and musical interpretation, where all the proper steps were made and all the right keys pressed.

Alas, all those positive aspects and characteristics couldn’t compensate for the fact that Lviv National Philharmonic sorely lacks in sound and show glaring deficiencies in instrumental playing, even when compared to some regional American ensembles. Already from the very first appearance in the Stankovych Chamber Symphony, one was alarmed by the paucity of volume and scant warmth of sound. If one reached back in memory to the ancient visits of Soviet‑era orchestras, even those not regarded “top shelf”, one recalled that their redeeming feature was the rich, warm string sound. We may only speculate that the history repeats itself and as it used to be some five decades ago in case of the East‑European orchestras, today the Ukrainian string players again don’t have decent instruments even if they have skills. In the end it is not–and it should not be–a task of a reviewer to ask himself why the results are sometimes not better than he’d expected to hear...

In the wind section of this orchestra, one could rarely find tone color or quality: the famed English horn solos in the Largo of the Dvorák were no more than adequate. The sound of flutes and oboes barely penetrated; on the other hand, the French horns were rarely able to produce sound below a healthy mezzo‑forte. A salient feature of the proceedings was the poor balance between the weak strings and voluminous brass and timpani: as a result, far too often the balance was totally skewed with strings that were badly covered. I found it especially regrettable in the Finale: Allegro con fuoco because otherwise, it had real momentum, brio, temperament and proper character but misbalance diminished the otherwise positive impression.

Perhaps the lack of rehearsal in the hall might have caused some of those moments when the brass produced grotesque illumination of the secondary, accompanying lines. The accuracy and intonation of the French horn section was not exactly a model of excellence.

Still, the orchestra was received with a prolonged standing ovation and we heard one encore: it was named “Chasing the wind” and was a fragment of the ballet by an Ukrainian composer Kos‑Anatolsky The Jay’s Wing. I would have guessed Dunayevsky, Kabalevsky, or any of the more popular Russian composers of the 50s, famous for their film scores.

One may speculate if perhaps right now somewhat diminished excellence of this orchestra at may be a result of the larger political upheaval: is there a possibility that at this point many Ukrainian ensembles be depleted or suffer losses as musicians are forced to take up the rifles instead of their instruments? Maybe their new Maestro, Theodore Kuchar, obviously a very experienced and capable conductor, was not yet able to put his own imprint on the ensemble? For this one evening, we witnessed an incredibly generous, noble, righteous act extended by Carnegie Hall which was willing to tender to these musicians a chance to share the best they have to offer with American audiences. In that aspect, their hosts succeeded: the house was sold out, the audience went wild with enthusiasm, standing ovations abounded and for a few hours the normalcy perhaps came back to those hapless musicians whose country had been so brutally invaded.

Roman Markowicz



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