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Igor the Puppet Master

New York
John C. Borden Auditorium
03/24/2000 -  
Poul Ruders: Tundra
Serge Prokofieff: Concerto # 3
Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1947 version)

Hyung-ki Joo (piano)
Manhattan Symphony
Sergiu Comissiona (conductor)

Without the benefit of any major anniversaries, the 2000-2001 season in New York is scheduled to be devoted to the works of Igor Stravinsky. At Carnegie Hall, the now departed artistic director has left as her last legacy an entire year wherein virtually every concert includes at least one of his compositions. Up the street at Lincoln Center, the Great Performances series will feature the Russian trickster in many differing guises and media (including film). It will be a challenging year for me as a critic, since I find the bulk of Stravinsky's music to be cold and uninteresting and his aesthetic of emotional distillation and expurgation foreign to every fiber of my being. However, I do love the various suites from The Firebird, even if I do find the complete ballet chockablock with filler material, and I am especially fond of the deliciously colorful Petrouchka. As a preview of things to come, I was able in this musical cornucopia of a city to attend three performances of this great ballet music in a very short period of time. First, the Pittsburgh Symphony presented a highly energetic reading of the revised 1947 version, then Pierre Boulez offered up a weak and dispassionate effort of the original score with the London Symphony, and now the Manhattan School of Music featured the revision in its Friday evening concert. The Pittsburgh will remain long in the memory as a superb performance, but last night's delightful klangfarbenmelodie was also of the highest quality.

MSM always engages an older conductor to guide its charges on the path to a career in classical music. For many years Sixten Ehrling led this youthful group and, after his retirement, Stanislaw Skrowacezski lent his considerable experience to the ongoing project to share the knowledge of the ages. The young Glen Cortese is the principal conductor of the ensemble, but he gives way to the graybeards and their unique brand of inspiration and mentoring so vital to the development of a young musician. Now it is Sergiu Comissiona, late of the Baltimore Symphony, who has the borrowed reigns and he produced a highly satisfying sound while whipping his colts into a lather as we all careened headlong through a spirited journey into the shadow world of the Russian street fair. For me, it is most heartening to listen to these young musicians, so earnest and eager, as they expend a gigantic effort for the sake of their art, a febrile quality rare in the more urbane but less elemental world of their older colleagues. This Petrouchka was very tight, each individual performer charged with delivering considerable musical freight (the 1947 version is a scaled down orchestration) and no one disappointing. The flute solos of Riona O'Duinnin were remarkable for their sensitive phrasing and the nimbleness (both physical and mental) of principal percussionist Vadim Karpinos was striking as he moved from the extremely vital side drum solos to the polyrhythmically complex xylophone parts with sometimes only a two beat cushion. Stravinsky learned his basic composition from Rimsky-Korsakoff, the greatest orchestrator of all time, and he was capable of astounding coloristic effects. It was a delight that after three performances someone finally read the damn score and dropped the tambourine from eye level to the floor at the moment of the puppet's death. This atavistically unpitched jingling thud is one of the most emotional moments in all of twentieth century music and yet neither "professional" orchestra that I heard recently had the adventurousness to attempt it, relying instead on a mini-drop onto a platform (Pittsburgh) or a simple hand tap (London). There is a certain element of temporal chance in the manoeuvre (the release of the young Galileo must be timed perfectly) but the result is not only sonically but visually chilling (there was an audible shudder in the audience). I hope that this type of risk taking is not confined strictly to the conservatories in future but I have noticed a certain timidity among conductors in general developing over the last 40 years or so (no one lets the horn section stand up at the end of Mahler's First any longer either).


The Ruders piece was an interesting essay in tone color as well and the Prokofieff was much better played by the orchestra than Wednesday's weak effort by the New York Phil, however the pianist was an irritatingly affected non-student with his own agenda, more interested in furthering his pop-style image than in communicating any musical ideas of substance. But it was the Stravinsky which stood out as a great performance and gave me courage to face an entire year of this devilish mountebank

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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