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Whistle Stop

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/22/2004 -  
Antonin Dvorak: Three Slavonic Dances, Piano Concerto, Symphony # 9
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Czech Philharmonic
Andrey Boreyko (conductor)

The calendar says that it is spring, but Arctic blasts down the canyons of Manhattan have made all New Yorkers dive back into their wardrobes for scarves and mittens. Imagine my surprise then to find that, inside of Carnegie Hall last evening, it was the middle of summer. The Czech Philharmonic presented a concert that, for better and worse, had the distinct feel of a lighter, outdoor event.

This fine ensemble has appeared in town twice in the past few seasons, bringing with it the veteran pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy as their leader and concentrating on a very serious set of musical programs. Last evening, however, their current tour of North America tarried in Gotham City with a substitute conductor, the Russian Andrey Boreyko, whose principal assignment is as the director of the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada. The program was obviously designed to pay homage to the 100th death anniversary of Antonin Dvorak and consisted exclusively of his music, opening rather festively with three of his Slavonic Dances. I joked with my colleagues afterwards, as the stage crew was bringing in the piano, that I felt that we should all go home now, since we had just heard the encore pieces. Little did I realize how correct my instincts would prove.

If you are looking for the next great undiscovered romantic piano concerto, then the Dvorak is definitely not it (you might try the #2 of Schwarenka). The piece is, well, rather dull, pleasant in its own way, but repetitive and reliant on one anorexic theme. Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard adopted an ephemeral, Mendelssohnian touch to his frothy approach that seemed fitting, but ultimately rather mind-numbing, and the orchestra, although technically close to flawless, contributed little more than the occasional oom-pah-pah. The work lists out at 37 minutes, but this listener was unpleasantly surprised to realize that, after the deadly first movement which seemed to last at least 30 of those minutes, that there were indeed two more movements to come (they are mercifully shorter, the whole essay has that deformed shape of its ancestor by Schumann).

All of this fluff seemed to be just filler while we waited for the featured work. Imagine, the ”New World” Symphony performed by Czechs as a special tribute for the Dvorak centenary at the hall where the piece was premiered in 1893 with the composer triumphantly in attendance. Unfortunately, what we received was one of those rare renditions that are technically impressive but emotionally bereft. Mr. Boreyko seemed to be following rather than leading most of the way, the entire experience insultingly just another stop on a barnstorming tour. Little was made, for example, of the famous Largo, the tempo too brisk, the phrasing clumsy, the poignancy notably absent. One could say (and some indeed did afterwards) that maestro pulled out too many of the stops, profligately spending his inheritance of orchestral effects. I don’t agree: each and every one of them is written into the score. The problem was that there was no substantial base of human feeling underlying these touches and flourishes, these blends and pauses, and so the net effect for some perceptive ears was micromanaged vapidity. I think rather that little preparation was expended on the emotional effect; this was simply another night on that endless road of the professional musician. Without the rolling hills of the Berkshires or the sultry nights of the Hollywood Bowl for distraction, without the sounds of the crickets or a good bottle of wine, one was forced to concentrate on the music at hand and remember nostalgically much more meaningful performances. Had I paid full price for this concert, I would have felt cheated.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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