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Drums Along the Rhine

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/19/2000 -  
Askell Masson: Concert Piece for Snare Drum and Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Michael Daugherty: UFO
Robert Schumann (ed. Mahler): Symphony # 3

Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
New York Philharmonic
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

When English prelate Richard Whately published his masterpiece of philosophical negation Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte, a contemporary critic praised the extreme artistry of the argument and yet maintained a certain distance by remarking "…Mr. Whately's point is well made, but well taken?" I thought of this gem of criticism as I fidgeted through the undoubtedly impressive display of paradiddles and press rolls that are stored in the armamentarium of Evelyn Glennie and which make up virtually the entire musical substance of Icelandic composer Askell Masson's colorless work presented in a very unusual concert last evening at Avery Fisher Hall. Although it is hard to disparage the talents of Ms. Glennie, the piece itself offered little in the way of substance and no instrumental color whatsoever. In a further disappointment, the recently excellent New York Philharmonic was relegated to a minimal accompanying role. Sound and fury signifying nothing and a huge waste of talent and the audience's time. If there were one word to describe this piece it would be monochromatic.

However, my mother always told me to be careful for what I wished in case it might come true, and after a solid performance of the Stravinsky wind music, we were all exposed to so much color that Mr. Masson's tedium started to seem appealingly nostalgic. An overeager lighting technician spoiled the initial surprise of the Daugherty but we were soon plunged into a piece of performance art purporting to depict the landing of an alien on our musical planet. Ms. Glennie was featured both visually and acoustically, and made her entrance from the rear of the auditorium, holding an electronic Papageno's birdcage, which produced a Theremin-like wave oscillation when struck (a beginning "appropriated" from the Tan Dun Concerto for Water and Percussion). Without doubt, Ms. Glennie poured her heart and soul (and a great deal of perspiration) into this performance. Her acting, happily, is no concern of this department. Dressed like Judy Jetson going to work at the McDonald's drive thru, she not only had to move "like an alien", but utter snatches of gibberish amplified through her operator's headset whilst moving through three distinct batteries of percussion instruments, each awash in a different bath of colored light. All this glitz was novel enough, but the music! I was particularly underwhelmed by the interminable middle section, an insipid cross between Yanni and Desi Arnaz, and was surprised to learn afterwards that Mr. Daugherty had written an entire work called Desi. I purposefully do not read program notes prior to a performance and learned at intermission from my companion, who has had the dubious honor of interviewing the composer, that he is a sort of tongue-in-cheek "pop" artist who is exploring the banal nature of American society by composing works about such predictable subjects as Elvis and Marilyn. All well and good, but UFO is about one percent as interesting as the music of those young men who overturn 5 gallon drums and play them on the street corners of Manhattan. I'm a huge fan of director Michaelangelo Antonioni, but a cogent argument can be made (and has been used against me quite successfully) that when he created films designed to show the mundane and meaningless nature of human life, he fell into the trap of making his movies themselves dull and boring. Mr. Daugherty may also be a victim of this; in his case it is vapidity by association. Once again it was a shame that the New York Phil was relegated to the "oom-pah-pah" role.

The highlight of this bizarre evening was fittingly not musical at all, but rather the brief lecture that Mr. Slatkin gave after intermission about the changes made to Schumann's symphonies by Gustav Mahler. A very complex subject (William Malloch once presented a three hour radio program about the changes to the "Spring" Symphony alone), Slatkin in a few musical examples educated his listeners ala Bernstein without overwhelming them. He is a very good communicator, both with the microphone and the baton, and should absolutely be considered as an heir to the throne now that Kurt Masur is stepping down. He is certainly a musical adventurer and deserves much praise for presenting contemporary music, even when it falls on its creative face. The orchestra was strong in the "Rhenish", producing a decent river flow and underscoring many inner voices, as Mahler had intended. We critics all revere Schumann (after all he was one of our own) but we don't treat him as a holy relic. Mahler let considerable air into his scores and these versions are not just historical curiosities, but viable performance alternatives.

What would Schumann have thought of the first half of the concert? Hard to say, but I would have some trepidation about introducing him to this type of musical theatre. After all, he did have marked suicidal tendencies.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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