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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/18/2004 -  
Richard Strauss: Don Juan
Gustav Mahler: Rueckertlieder
Arnold Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande

Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Nine

The Light Ahead

The Robert Mapplethorpe Residential Treatment Center now occupies the building at 327 East 17th Street that replaced the 19th century house whose most famous tenant was Antonin Dvorak. Just around the corner, where part of Beth Israel Hospital now stands, is the site of the conservatory that the composer ran in the 1890’s. New York marks the spot with plaques, street signs and a statue suggesting that the great man was also a unique corporeal specimen, suffering from both dwarfism and acromegaly. The unveiling of this curiosity, attended by this reporter some years ago, was accompanied by remarks from eminent Czech-Americans, including Milos Forman and then first lady Donna Hanover, and a concert featuring Dvorak’s great-grandson Josef Suk. Some of the distinction and gentility of the Bohemian still adorns the neighborhood, even though the little park, with its odd combination of downtrodden locals and uniformed medical personnel on coffee break, reminds rather chillingly of Mr. Forman’s eloquent “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Dvorak enriched American cultural life significantly and was responsible for the single most important event in the musical history of the hemisphere when he attended the world premiere of his Symphony #9 (then known as number 5) in December of 1893. Although the story that the crowd was so overwhelmed that the composer had to come down from the balcony and personally conduct a reprise of the largo is probably apocryphal, there is no doubt that this evening was a watershed in New World aesthetics. From then on, composers from this side of the Atlantic could enunciate proudly and idiomatically in their own voice. It is unthinkable that this shining moment could have occurred anywhere else than at Carnegie Hall.

Another European teacher who taught Americans to sing in their own voice was Arnold Schoenberg. Now considered one of the greatest academicians of the last century in spite, or perhaps because, of his own autodidacticism, the displaced Viennese inspired a generation of western students to listen deeply to their idiomatic heritage so eloquent within and without them. The same man who launched the careers of Alban Berg and Anton Webern in Europe shepherded the creative energies of such diverse California acolytes as John Cage, Robert Craft, Skitch Henderson, Gunther Schuller, Oscar Levant and Dave Brubeck. Schoenberg’s mantra was a simple one: don’t copy me!

Last evening the Vienna Philharmonic presented the first of three concerts with a decidedly local flavor. The opening and closing items on the menu were similar works of central European color and tone-narration. Although I strongly prefer the Schoenberg to the Strauss, both novelistic events were delivered by Maestro Ozawa in a burst of radiant passion, his new band sounding better than they have for many years. The Vienna strings, never one of my favorite sections, produced a pleasantly surprising sonority much richer and fuller than any they have manufactured since von Karajan. The brass section was spectacular in both pieces, gorgeously integrated not just as a unit, but, even more importantly (and harder for the conductor to accomplish), as a key component of the whole. Criticism of the Pelleas often mentions its overly charged nature. Maestro took this particular young bull by the horns and served up all of this hormonal stew as glorious, almost ecstatic, poetry. Although the harmonic language is still tentatively post-Tristan, a wild version like this one points out the incipient radical yearning to breathe free (Schoenberg’s own voice indeed).

The “other” songs of Gustav Mahler based on poems of Friedrich Rueckert, the Kindertotenlieder, were given their world premiere performance in Vienna just three days after the Schoenberg was launched by a less prestigious Viennese ensemble than this glorious Vienna Phil. Also on the program that evening were four of the five less formally constructed songs (they can still be sung in any order) now known as the Rueckertlieder. Thomas Hampson was indisposed last evening and could not possibly sing these demanding songs properly, but, alas, his condition did not deter him from trying. Not able to hit the high F in Liebst du um Schoenheit, his performance, valiant though it may have been, degenerated into an unsuccessful attempt to maintain any semblance of correct pitch, eventually pooling badly in an off key and kilter Um Mitternacht, revealing midnight monsters more horrible than the composer had ever meant to summon. To be fair, Mr. Hampson did evoke some sensitive characterizations in these songs and was accompanied in high pointillistic style by Ozawa, who seemed to revel in individual moments of flash, for example in celeste and harp. Hampson is one of the greatest singers in the world today, but, in order to remain on top, he needs to be self-aware enough to know when to call in sick.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Antonin Dvorak. Some would characterize this last musical century as a steadily downward line from high art to meaningless pablum. Others, this critic among them, would draw rather a parabolic shape, the ascent representing the first half of the 1900’s, the descent the second. Still other brave polemicists maintain that the best compositions are those of today and the old traditional performances of Beethoven and Mozart are so last fortnight. Dvorak’s contemporary music included Brahms and Bruckner as well as Mahler and Schoenberg. The departing Bohemian could take comfort in knowing that while the old masters were revered on his visits to Vienna, the young lions were also breaking loose. One wonders what he might think if he returned to his old neighborhoods today.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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