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One Hit Wonder

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/04/2000 -  
George Enescu: Suite # 3, Symphonie Concertante, Concert Overture, Symphony # 1
Bion Tsang (cello)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

Success came early to George Enescu and haunted him for the rest of his life. The amazing popularity of the Romanian Rhapsody # 1 catapulted him onto the concert stage but totally overshadowed the rest of his more adventurous repertoire. He peaked in audience acceptance at the age of twenty but lived well into his seventies. Enescu was perhaps the most versatile musician of the first half of the previous century, performing competently on the piano and cello and masterfully on the violin. He was a world famous violin teacher whose most illustrious pupil was Lord Yehudi Menuhin. He made and lost fortunes because of the volatile political situation back home in Bucharest and was slavishly devoted to an insane (and married) woman whom he eventually married only to see her vast land holdings swallowed up by the emerging Communist regime.


Idiomatically Enescu is the child of Berlioz and Wagner. The first piece presented by Botstein last evening is subtitled "Villageoise" and consists of country scenes ala Symphonie Fantastique. The opening measures are some of the sonically strangest that one will ever hear. The melody is for flute, clarinet and solo violin and is reminiscent of the piffaro section of Harold in Italy, a work with which Enescu was familiar, since this wizard was also a virtuoso of the viola (he once played a string quartet concert where he sat in each chair in rotation during the evening). The charming evocations of rural life were well presented by the ASO, an astounding treasure of musical archaeology unique in the Western world. Where else can one hear unearthed works of the masters on a regular basis? New Yorkers are lucky to have such a dedicated band of scholars in their midst.

I had the pleasure of hearing young Bion Tsang recently at Bargemusic. He is a cellist of uncommon intensity and brilliant dexterity. He seemed to have no problems traversing the difficult solo part in the Symphonie Concertante, although his volume level was insufficient to be heard consistently over the orchestra (the ASO does tend to drown out singers as well).

Enescu's life is one of near misses. Also a brilliant conductor, he was in line to succeed Toscanini as head of the fabled NBC Symphony only to be beaten at the last by John Barbirolli. The performance history of his works would have been considerably different had he obtained this post and it is conceivable that important works like his symphonies would not today be languishing in obscurity. He is in many ways a more tonally centered version of Bartok and the ASO brought out the hora rhythms inherent in his fine Symphony # 1 to the appreciative ears of those who stayed until the end (there were numerous defections throughout the program).

I always forget to mention the fine pre-concert talks of Richard Wilson, the composer in residence of the group (although they never seem to actually play any of his music). He is a marvelous speaker, endowed with a sophisticated dry wit and a wonderfully refreshing sense of self-deprecation which invariably teaches his rapt audience by reinforcing his salient points with humor. Often I enjoy the lecture more than the music. Taken as a whole, an evening with the American Symphony never fails to disappoint and often produces a hunger to learn more about the unusual repertoire that they consistently present. Even if the performances were less professional, the experience would be well worth the price of admission.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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