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Lake Eerie Days

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/01/2003 -  02/03/03 02/06/03
Ludwig van Beethoven (arr. Mitropoulos): Quartet # 14
Richard Strauss: Death and Transfiguration; Four Last Songs
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerti Nos. 20 & 21; Serenade # 6
Kaija Saariaho: Orion
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 7

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Moest (conductor)


“O vast and silent peace!
So deep in twilight ruddiness,
We are so wander-weary-
Could this perhaps be death?”

Joseph von Eichendorff, Im Abendrot

Franz Welser-Moest must feel a deep affinity with Dmitri Mitropoulos. Crucified by the British press (they quickly dubbed him “Frankly Worst Than Most”), he was hunted down in London as relentlessly as Bill Sykes. His status as a pariah paralleled that of the Greek maestro in New York, who was summarily fired from his post soon after a vicious attack entitled “What’s Wrong With The Philharmonic And Why” appeared in a now defunct Gotham rag. Making a fresh start in America, he opens his first ever Carnegie series as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra with Mitro’s transcription of a Beethoven quartet. Like Rachmaninoff, Mitropoulos thought of himself as a composer first, a conductor second, and a pianist third, but, as Gustav Mahler did before him, he exhibited remarkable restraint as head of the Philharmonic in programming very little of his own creation. Ironically, it was St. Dmitri’s nemesis, Leonard Bernstein, who scored a hit with a lush recording of this fertile reworking of the string quartet on LP.

My objection to this arrangement has always been that it sacrifices the most important quality of the late quartets: the aspect of privacy. Not prescient enough to foresee the portable CD player and headphones, Beethoven composed this music only for himself, thinking of posterity, if at all, as enjoying its subtleties not in concert but in a solitary perusal of the score. It is disconcerting enough to listen to this piece in an intimate chamber hall; to experience the full power of 60 string players is simply wrong. Having said all of this, the work is a sensuous sonorous portrait, but more a Botero than a Modigliani. This Cleveland performance was technically impressive, although a bit ponderous.

Thanatology was on the mind of the new maestro as he dedicated the concert to the victims of the space shuttle disaster from the same morning. The Four Last Songs were not written by Strauss as a unified whole, although they have always been regarded as such from the initial Flagstad-Furtwaengler performance. Now, Welser-Moest has added Death and Transfiguration to the opus, performing it as a prelude to the songs and never dropping his arms until after the conclusion of Fruehling. There was a certain harshness to this new orchestral introduction and just the sense of the stilted. Phrasing decisions were decidedly on the carefully bourgeois side; there was little sense of confronting the mysteries of the universe and more thought to the fruition of a comfortable burgher’s existence. Dame Felicity has a rather small voice for such an eloquent piece in such a large hall, her expertly husbanded approach really only allowing her to let herself go once (in the third song). There was nothing particularly wrong with this realization, however there was little about it that was deeply moving. Could this perhaps be death? Perhaps not.


“…there rang out behind me a peal of laughter, a clear and ice-cold laughter out of a world beyond unknown to men, a world born of sufferings, purged and divine humour. I turned about, frozen through with the blessing of this laughter, and there came Mozart.”

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Mitsuko Uchida is a featured artist at Carnegie for this season and the next. She will appear in many different roles including recitalist, programmer, soloist with orchestra, chamber performer, developer of young musicians (as president of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, this is her favorite persona at present), and, this night, conductor. Well, more of an exhorter than a conductor. When last I heard Ms. Uchida perform the 20th Concerto, her conception was a very dark one and her presence in front of a huge New York Philharmonic made for a somber and chilling journey. Now, in charge of the ensemble, she presented a much lighter context, reducing the orchestral forces to a small band (around 30) and placing her lidless instrument with the soundboard immersed in the center of the general population for maximum absorption. Her conductorial duties were centered, as they should have been, around the rehearsals, as the ensemble began with a low growl which required some strain to hear. Even in the louder sections, this was an extremely quiet performance, perfectly blended to compliment Ms. Uchida’s elfin touch.

Some patrons and critics complained at the interval about the wee voices from the stage, but I, for one, was enchanted with the entire experience. The more obviously beautiful 21st was similarly ratcheted down, Madame’s “Elvira Madigan” theme consisting of droplets of falling water. The serenade at midpoint was a charming piece of tafelmusik played expertly sans conductor by the strings and timpani (one would have wished for those adorable baby kettles from Mozart’s day, but they were nowhere in evidence) which served as a pleasant interlude between concerti. This entire evening, in fact, was a welcome pause from, at least outwardly, more weighty matters.


“…there was always something far and lonely, haunting with ecstasy and sorrow, desolation and the intolerable, numb exultancy of some huge, impending happiness. It was a cow bell, drowsy, far and broken in a gust of wind, as it came to him faintly from the far depth and distance of a mountain valley…”

Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock

One of the best ways to evaluate an orchestral leader is to observe how well he bounces back from adversity. Maestro Welser-Moest’s worst nightmare reared up before all of us this night, as the Symphony # 7 got off to a disastrous start (and, essentially, this was the only music on the program, after the laughable opening piece of pretentious fluff and its interminable repetition of the same three-chord progression: one hesitates to label what happened to those passages variations) when the opening solo melody was totally botched and the surrounding strings, left to navigate for themselves in a maelstrom of individual entrances and exits, floundered badly and foundered on the rocks of hesitancy. A great man would have simply stopped the proceedings and had the courage to begin again; Welser-Moest has not yet earned the confidence level to even think of attempting such a radical solution. I was impressed, however, with how he slogged along, righting his ship with time and a funereally slow tempo (I thought that it was Mahler 5 for a while). By the time that the amazing conclusion of the movement was upon us, the ensemble was actually playing in a very spirited manner.

One probably should not attempt to perform such complex music with such a woefully deficient brass section, as the “night watch” section of movement two was a bitter reminder. Yet once again, Herr W-M rallied his troops, although the campaign was already lost for many. There were loud walk-outs during and after every movement, the conductor’s body language deteriorating from a defiant stoicism to a defeated slouch over time. Just when everything seemed on track once again, a bizarre incident broke the mood irreparably. The first entrance of the unpitched cowbells was answered by the unmistakable barrage of loose change falling to the parquet floor. Again the bells. And again the money! Hysterical, in both senses of the word, and probably only amusing due to the waffling emanating from the stage.

Several exhibitions of disgruntled patrons later, the orchestra actually produced a splendid rendition of the charming fourth movement. One could hear the gondolas bobbing in the lagoon (although, I am going to Venice in a few weeks…) on this sultry night, the strings suitably silken, the clarinet trills exquisite, the guitar and mandolin delicious but tasteful. The finale was also competent, although much of the wind had already gone out of the sails of this ragtag performance. The Cleveland Orchestra was such a beacon of quality in the halcyon days of George Szell, but fell on hard times and lowered standards (Gotham residents take note: this occurred during the Maazel years) before experiencing a revival of discipline under von Dohnanyi. Whither they goest seems unpredictable at present.

New Yorkers won’t have Franz Welser-Moest to kick around again for quite some time. Next year, for better or worse, the Clevelanders appear here exclusively under Pierre Boulez.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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