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It''s Your Birthday

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/07/2002 -  
Carl Maria von Weber: from Oberon
Ludwig van Beethoven: from Fidelio, Ah, perfido, Symphony # 5

Deborah Voigt (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

The people applauded so much that I had
to thank them from the box like a king…”

Antonin Dvorak

Over 100 years before Franklin Delano Roosevelt codified Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, a group of dedicated musicians and patrons formed the society that has met continuously down to the present day as the New York Philharmonic. Actually, the society can trace its roots back to 1799, but marks its official inception from the concert given on December 7, 1842, the eve of Thanksgiving in that particular year. By leaps and bounds the oldest orchestra in the Americas, the Phil has much to look back upon with pride. At that initial evening, they offered only the second performance ever of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven in our hemisphere and, just four years later, conductor Ureli Corelli Hill mounted the American premiere of the mighty 9th (in that same year of 1846, Wagner encountered considerable resistance in Dresden when he dared to propose this symphony, still considered too raucous and dissonant for polite audiences). From these humble beginnings on the block cornered by Broadway and Canal Street, in the heart of present day Chinatown, the Phil has grown into an international institution with a prodigious performance history. From its flowering under Theodore Thomas, who would go on to found the Chicago Symphony, through its golden years under Wagner protégé Anton Seidl and Bruckner protégé Gustav Mahler, the Philharmonic established the pattern for all major orchestras in the US: a solid grounding in the Germanic repertoire from which to grow and explore other cultures. It was Seidl who presided at the most significant night in the history of music on this side of the pond: the world premiere of the Symphony #9, “From the New World” of transplanted Bohemian Antonin Dvorak.

The first half of the 20th century was particularly fertile for the ensemble. After Mahler’s death in 1911, Arturo Toscanini made the group his own and brought this upstart band to Europe to dazzle the old country. Bruno Walter was the principal guest of the orchestra for many years and led a distinguished visiting faculty which included Otto Klemperer and George Szell. During the Dmitri Mitropoulos era, the orchestra made a name for itself as boldly innovative, both in programming, including concert performances of Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and in audience building (they even played the Roxy Theatre, opening for Hollywood potboilers).

Oscar Levant used to say about Leonard Bernstein that “…he used music as an accompaniment to his conducting…”, but there was no denying the sheer force of personality of this unique streaking comet across the night sky of classical music. Love him or hate him, no fan could dismiss him as he vaulted the Philharmonic into the forefront of the new medium of television. Bernstein almost singlehandedly brought about the resurgence in popularity of the works of Mahler, who himself had only programmed one performance each of his first two symphonies while he had been music director at Carnegie Hall. And the emergence of an American as a worthy member of the pantheon of the immortals was totally the brainchild of Bernstein. Virtually no one before the 1950’s had ever even heard the music of Charles Ives, let alone recognized its greatness.

Now, 160 years after its creation, the Phil is ready to party. New music director Lorin Maazel led a one night event featuring much of the music from that maiden voyage. Concerts were much longer in those days and so maestro jettisoned the Rossini duets and Kalliwoda piece which filled out the inaugural program, but preserved the spirit of the evening by including arias by Beethoven and Weber and, of course, the signature C Minor. Mercifully, the powers that be kept the speeches to a minimum.

The performance itself was a rather mixed affair. Normally reliable soprano Deborah Voigt, after a strong ”Ozean, du Ungeheuer!”, had major pitch fluctuation problems in the aria from Fidelio, perhaps affected by similar meanderings in the ensemble’s brass section. Her ”Ah! perfido”, a piece not performed on that original evening, was more assured but oddly flaccid. The orchestra was somewhat unfocused in the two overtures and, I am sad to report, the violas were once again banished to their auditory isolation at the front. A creditable but prosaic Beethoven 5 rounded out the program.

The presence of Mr. Hill’s great-grandson in the audience prompted me to ruminate on the differences between the musical environments separated by so long a time. When U.C. founded the group, America was just beginning to appreciate serious art music and was hungry for all sorts of growth and propagation. Today, classical music is, at best, a vestigial organ on the body politic and losing ground annually. Major changes in attitudes, education and refreshment must occur to keep this hothouse flower from dying on the vine. Otherwise, there will be little to celebrate 160 years from now.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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