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Sharing Northern Light

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/01/2000 -  
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony # 8 (New York premiere)
Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto
Jean Sibelius: Symphony # 7

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

The Wagner Society here in New York has a motto which I take very much to heart. It simply states "to learn, to teach, to share". It is a boundless joy to share the greatest music with eager listeners not only for performers but also for us lowly members of the press. With great anticipation I introduced my companion last evening to the marvelous sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra string section in an evening of music awash in golden color for these particular instruments. Although I was naturally unfamiliar with the Rautavaara (it was given its world premiere by this glorious ensemble just this past Thursday evening), I was reasonably confident that it would feature the strings as so much of his music employs this particular acoustical aesthetic. However, what surprised me was just how predictable this music actually was. I have experienced before the sameness of this hot Finn’s music and have previously described his modern brand of spirituality in our age of apostasy. But in the Symphony # 8, subtitled "The Journey", Rautavaara’s contemporary Lemminkainen only appears to meander in his home realm of forest and lake, not extending his journey beyond the now standard sound of the Gorecki-Kancheli school. Of course, if this were the first piece of modern Finnish music that I had heard I would have been suitably impressed, as the gorgeous blending of string sounds enveloped us all. I can’t imagine a better performance in the current global orchestral arena than this "fabulous Philadelphian" version.

Samuel Barber is another matter. Having close ties to Philadelphia, he fits in perfectly with their season-long theme of only presenting works from the 20th century, many of which this orchestra has introduced to the world (again the world premiere of this concerto was granted to them). Although the program notes extol the praises of the melodic lines, I hear very little to hold my interest. This concerto is modeled almost slavishly on the Brahms, complete with long oboe solo at the beginning of the central slow movement. This sincere form of flattery exposes the violinist to the same dilemma as in the Hamburg master’s piece however, what is he to do during the long orchestral passages? At least in the Brahms he can enjoy the music! Zimmermann is an elegant violinist and played this tedious piece aristocratically, certainly giving it more than its due. The strings of the orchestra were again impressive but ultimately it was like listening to a great actor and theatrical ensemble reading from the telephone book.

No such concerns inhabited the stellar performance of the mighty Sibelius. Certainly a candidate for the greatest work of the entire century, this amazing distillation of acoustical and aural imagery occurred to the composer as a series of color patterns which he could actually envision as he wrote these passages. Akin to Scriabin’s idea of color equals sound the result is really a journey into the vast reaches of inner space, much more adventurous than anything in the imagination of Mr. Rautavaara. This remarkable symphony is scored for divided strings (that is there are several first violin parts, cello parts, etc.) and begs for lovingly blended voices. We certainly were feted with such a sound last evening and should have been deeply moved. However, it became obvious to all at the incredibly tense conclusion of the work that most of us were left confused. Surrealistically, my friend and I seemed to be the only two people applauding (the symphony is in one movement and I think that most of the Carnegie Hall patrons were expecting it to continue) and Sawallisch was so rattled by this anomaly that he pulled the orchestra off of the stage after only a single curtain call. Even though the crowd began to clap after a while, the mood was irrevocably broken. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the musicians on stage don’t care about the reaction of the audience. On this particular night communication was difficult and the sharing of our common joy problematical.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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