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House Call

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/29/2002 -  12/04/02
Leos Janacek: Capriccio
Richard Strauss: Burleske
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 2
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Christoph von Dohnanyi (conductor)

For a variety of reasons, I have not had the opportunity to visit the New York Philharmonic more than once in their new year of transition. First, I was away and then they were. It seemed time to catch up with the local band and take their temperature after their bout with maestro interruptus. What better chance to perform an examination than during a relatively tranquil time under the care of the distinguished Christoph von Dohnanyi?


I had to wait a little while to check the patient’s vital signs as the opening work was for small wind group and piano. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (amusingly called Pierre Laurent-Aimard in the program notes) certainly made the Janacek enjoyable, performing with one hand as if it were two, the select group of back-up players (including the rarely heard tenor tuba) adding just the right swatches of tonal color. I must confess to never having appreciated the Strauss piece before, feeling confused and a little put off by its pallid humor, but had I been introduced to it by Aimard, I would have been a devotee from the outset, his rendition so luxurious as to turn this problem play into the finest of lyrical utterances, exclusive of either irony or exaggerated wit. Simply put, Monsieur Aimard seemed to be saying, this is beautiful music, programming be damned.

But for me, the stunning aspect of the evening was the remarkably improved sound of the ensemble. After hectoring them for eleven years now, I was somewhat gratified to see that they have finally removed the violas from the front of stage left, replacing them with the second violins. Now the violas can actually be heard, as their sound boards face the audience rather than the back of the proscenium, and the antiphonal nature of the music can be more fully explored. I have attended only one Lorin Maazel concert thus far, and he still clung to the old wrong-headed seating arrangement. It would be unusual (although not unprecedented) for a guest conductor to reseat everyone, but after all, Maestro von Dohnanyi is the one who was not invited back to the Boston Symphony for several years after he spent his guest rehearsal time retuning them. Now a distinguished professor emeritus, he is not about to serve up a substandard product just because of his host’s bad habits. I won’t have to wait long for Mr. Maazel, as I will be in the crowd for the Phil’s 160th birthday concert on December 7. Hopefully, he will keep the new alignment in place.

Something of the von D magic certainly inspired these players, for the Brahms 2 was a fine performance, rich and burnished, gentle and airy. Many of the section leaders had this night after Thanksgiving off, creating a golden opportunity for other talented artists, such as horn soloist Jerome Ashby, to shine. Here was a very romantic approach, graced with generous doses of orchestral rubato and unhurried phrasemaking. The pace was just right for such a bucolic work and the overall feeling of well being was infectious.

Maestro certainly had fun with the seating during the second concert. Set up for the Bartok, with two distinct chamber orchestras facing one another, he opened the program with the enigmatic Ives piece, the duality of ensemble prescribed by the Magyar working wonders for the clashing harmonies of the Yankee. Further, the interrogatory trumpet was positioned at the back of the audience and the answering (or obfuscating) flutes were placed at the rear of the orchestra stage right with their backs to von Dohnanyi, taking their cues from an assistant conductor. All worked well in this highlight of an otherwise disappointing evening.

There was an odd synaesthesia surrounding the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste this night. Visually, this was a stunning version (like the Concerto for Orchestra, this is a fascinating opus to watch), with an added funhouse mirror touch of the concertmistress leading her orchestra stage left, but musically it was mind-deadeningly dull. After only three measures, I remembered with distaste a former performance of this exotic work led by this same conductor with his Clevelanders some years ago. Here’s what I wrote on that occasion:

“The Bartok however was a disaster. For a Hungarian, Maestro seems to have little feeling for this complexly rhythmic music... I heard several intermission comments which were very negative, however they were directed at the work rather than the performance. This seemed highly unfair. Further, von D did little with the percussion, relegating it to a back room role, and totally destroyed the marvelously precipitatingly cascading ending by inexplicably stopping in the middle of this normally thrilling phrase as if to catch his breath. The roller coaster simply chugged down a straight and boring path and we left the ride unsatisfied.”

Sadly, little has changed.

In my view, the weakest of all of the Beethoven major orchestral pieces is the repetitive Violin Concerto. Only a performance employing a rich palette of color can keep us fully invested. Christian Tetzlaff (apparently the Phil, undoubtedly in an inclusive spirit, is employing a dyslexic program annotator these days, as this is the second booklet in a row to misspell the name of the guest soloist, calling this violinist “Teztlaff”) has a sparkling enough tone, if a bit suspect in general standards of accuracy, but his first movement was decidedly monochromatic. He did compose his own cadenza, a duet for fiddle and timpani, whose strident nature, undoubtedly inspired by the opening passage of the piece as a whole, was evocatively Napoleonic and diverting, but the tedium returned soon thereafter. I was especially displeased with the rondo, as Tetzlaff’s quiet and gentle interpretation was severely undercut by von D.’s bombastic orchestral ending. I have heard Midori perceptively perform this section as a relentless decrescendo, by the end just a whimper. But this ensemble’s bang after their soloist’s sensitivity was just silly. I know that the calendar says December, but it’s still a little early for New York’s annual visit from PDQ Bach.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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