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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/03/2004 -  
Dmitri Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Symphony # 5
Bela Bartok: Piano Concerto # 3

Helene Grimaud (piano)
Russian National Orchestra
Alexander Vedernikov (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part One

The Naked Dawn

(for Robert Harth)

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Joni Mitchell

Devotees of the parlor game Initial Response will be intrigued to know of a direct link between cult favorite filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer (EU) and French composer Edgard Varese (EV). The director approached the avant-garde artist and asked him to produce a new piece of music for his proposed film “Carnegie Hall”, an opus which would turn out, in typical Ulmer fashion, to be a jumbled and lovably incoherent pastiche of wonderful moments, a true historical document disguised as a monumentally unsatisfying potboiler (and, for film buffs, would also include the first celluloid appearance of the young Cloris Leachman). Varese poured his finest Dadaist energies into a score which mimics the unspeakable cacophony produced by American orchestras whilst waiting for the conductor to come out and start the formal concert. Entitled Tuning Up, it is one of the most insouciant works of the previous century, however its cutting edge nature made it ultimately unsuitable for the film (for an effort to be rejected by Edger Ulmer, it has to have been exceedingly strange!) and it did not see the light of day until after the composer’s death.

What is most striking today as one watches this cinematic diamond in the rough is the absolute certainty that everyone in the contemporary audience knows about and at least deeply respects, if not outright cherishes, Carnegie Hall as an institution, the unopposed center of Western musical culture. Like the “practice, practice, practice” joke of my youth, the film treats as a given the identity of the place as the ultimate performing space, keeping the eternal flame of classical music burning brightly and lighting the way to an Apollonian future. But Ulmer plied his craft (or whatever) in 1947; it is questionable if a movie featuring the 2004 equivalents of the likes of Heifetz, Pons, Stokowski, Rubinstein and Walter (even Tchaikovsky makes an appearance, but I don’t think that it is actually him) would even be released for contemporary audiences. On the same emblematic level wherein this fabled edifice was for so long the symbol of artistic integrity and excellence, its current highly publicized travails and identity crises have captured the imagination of that steadily decreasing segment of the population that cares about the preservation of our glorious aesthetic heritage. As a fervent lover of the place, I thought that it was time to devote some substantial ink to these matters, and so, with the gracious cooperation of the Carnegie press office, all of my reviews for the month of February will be issued from the corner of 7th Avenue and West 57th Street.

The idea for this series was hatched during those dark days when it appeared that the New York Philharmonic was going to take over the storied auditorium and its two lesser rooms and change the locks so that many of the great artists and ensembles of our time would be left in the cold. That this scenario was even considered (and, in fact, conceived) by Carnegie management still seems a betrayal of the public trust long after the actuality has died a welcome death. Sadly, the series begins just days after the shocking death of executive director Robert Harth. Much agonizing and soul-searching went into the decision to continue with these articles at this time, for some of the points to be made are critical of Mr. Harth’s ideas. Ultimately, however, it was the very example of Robert Harth and his energetic dedication which convinced this reviewer to forge ahead. There is no doubt that he was deeply committed to strengthening the leadership position of Carnegie Hall and was also especially open to new ideas: although we may have disagreed on the how, we always were in accord about the why.

With the benefit now of eight months of perspective, this group of articles will explore topics such as the dangers of musical unilateralism, the role of the smaller venues, the ascendancy of pop and “world” music, the mission and responsibility of a high profile institution in the face of contemporary ignorance of classical music, comparative acoustics 101, the symbolism and history of the building itself, tradition versus iconoclasm, the Philharmonic, the status of musical life in New York today, and a brief glimpse into the future. Hopefully, the series will provide some opportunities for further thinking and evaluation of the core question about Carnegie Hall: how successful is their stewardship in such troubled times for our beloved art form?


1. Tuesday, February 3 The Naked Dawn

2. Friday, February 6 Detour

3. Monday, February 9 Mr. Broadway

4. Wednesday, February 11 The Philharmonic –
What’s Wrong With It And Why

5. Thursday, February 12 Our Daily Bread

6. Friday, February 13 Jive Junction

7. Saturday, February 14 Song of Russia

8. Sunday, February 15 Strange Illusion

9. Wednesday, February 18 The Light Ahead

10. Thursday, February 19 The Cavern

11. Friday, February 20 Beyond the Time Barrier

12. Sunday, February 22 Menschen am Sonntag

13. Monday, February 23 The Amazing Transparent Man

14. Friday, February 27 Dead From Lincoln Center

15. Saturday, February 28 Tomorrow We Live

The year before Ulmer made his film, Gyorgy Sándor, a close personal and pianistic friend of Bela Bartók and, perhaps more importantly to this story, of Ditta Pásztory as well, presented the world premiere performance of the Piano Concerto # 3 in Philadelphia. Just two weeks later, Mr. Sándor repeated his heartfelt tribute to his deceased friend here at Carnegie, again with fellow Hungarian Eugene Ormandy at the helm. Last evening, I was both shocked and awed to discover that Sándor was sitting directly in front of me, eagerly following this current rendition, score in hand. At the interval, the 91 year old was delightful and gracious company as we reminisced. Mr. Sándor is fit and sound and can look back at an extremely distinguished career, not only in performance, but, much more satisfyingly, in education. Imagine, Gyorgy Sándor. Only at Carnegie Hall!

The RNO, essentially a youth orchestra, was founded in the last decade and has already incurred its first major upheaval. Although listed in the original program book as being led by Vladimir Spivakov, it appeared instead with the Bolshoi’s Alexander Vedernikov because the original conductor has already broken with the ensemble to found his own “Russian National Philharmonic”, taking many of the old (although young) RNO players with him. Obviously in flux, last evening’s ensemble was competent but not thrilling. The quotidian rendition of the military band style Festive Overture was indeed rousing, but lacked that certain Shostakovich “middle finger in the pocket” irony. Helene Grimaud had a rather rocky start in the concerto, not really finding her equilibrium until the beginning of the second movement. She embraces the Bártokian percussive style, but perhaps this is not quite correct for this more gentle composition. The orchestra occasionally was brittle and harsh sounding and there was a decided tip of the acoustic scales towards the soloist, producing unbalanced dominance of the keyboard when it was least welcome. The middle movement was actually quite beautiful, Ms. Grimaud especially tender and contemplative in the legato line, but even here, particularly in the avian section composed in North Carolina, there were moments of awkwardness resulting from a disconnect between podium and piano bench. One would have thought that this was the first performance of the piece with this particular combination of personnel, but, in actuality, they have already realized it several times on tour. Highly energetic in the third movement, Grimaud dazzled as she can do as well as anyone, but one never felt totally surrounded by this magical piece, the final act of love of the dying composer.

After the interval, we all settled in to what we expected to be a highly charged traversal of the mighty Shostakovich 5, but were given instead a rather pedestrian and metronomic version. Someone must have erased all of the tempo markings from maestro’s score, for he never varied his pace within a particular movement, a technique that emphasized the marching qualities of the piece, with its evocations of global conflict, but that eliminated much of the tension and frisson that normally catapults this particular work of Shostakovich into the pantheon of audience favorites. The word “dull” came to mind much more often than it should, and in a performance with some rather significant technical gaffs, the monotony was all the more unwelcome. Shostakovich never would have made the cover of “Time” if all of his performances sounded like this one. Perhaps most telling was that there was no explosion of cheering at the end. Some works, this one among them, should elicit especially enthusiastic and spontaneous responses. Although the crowd was generous in its applause, there was no electricity, only warm approval. The cleaning lady’s son in the Ulmer movie (don’t ask) got a much more frenzied ovation when he played Carnegie Hall.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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