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Dancing with Demons

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
12/13/2007 -  and *December 15

Ibert: Hommage à Mozart
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Shostakovitch: Symphony No 4

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrey Boreyko (conductor)

Three conductors made their NY Philharmonic debut this month, and while they all deserve further hearings, Andrey Boreyko gave the most challenging, possibly the most seditious program of the lot. It wasn’t that the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is rarely played, that the composer himself withdrew it (for still unexplained reasons), and that the hour-long piece taxed the most delicate ears of Phil listeners. But after the first two works, nobody could be prepared for this astonishing symphony.

Presently musical director of orchestras in both Hamburg and Bern, Boreyko is a pleasure to watch and hear. Not ostentatious or showy, he still sways with the music, shrugs his shoulders at the more outrageous symphonic moments and bounces with the rhythm.

He started with a typical Ibert effervescence, his Hommage à Mozart . Trumpets, drums, and strings could have introduced a modern French farce, but Ibert inserted the right Mozartean tonic-dominant phrase to give it - sometimes - an 18th Century patina.

That was sparkling an inconsequential. But listening to Boreyko with the Phil’s first-chair players, though, gave a new meaning to the opening Ravel Piano Concerto.

One knew that soloist Hélène Grimaud - a.k.a. Our Lady of Wolf Conservation - would sweep through the piano part with Gallic aplomb. The jazzy opening, the jocular close and the long long cantabile middle section (Ravel had said sustaining it was “a killing experience”) were taken by Grimaud with the most sensitive touch, and, in the finale, finger-fireworks. But Boreyko turned this into a virtual Concerto For Orchestra . Triple-tonguing trumpets, tootling piccolos, barking horns, and those all-important wood-blocks blended with the strings, not overwhelming the piano, but coloring the palette so at times hers was almost an obbligato role.

The festive first half, though, was hardly a fête accompli. For the Shostakovich symphony stretched not only the enormous musical resources for the sometimes puzzled ears of the audience. If they were looking for structure or logic in the 30-minute-long first movement, they had come to the wrong place. Beginning with an industrial factory-whistle wail, the movement whirls about at its own dizzying enigmatic pace.

Boreyko at times seemed less a conductor than a circus ringmaster, with dozens of varying acts of strength, audacity, triviality, one breathtaking future for the great Phil string sections, and hallucinatory climaxes. Shostakovich called it “long-winded” but if one simply heard it as vocal pictures at an exhibition, it was fascinating.

The relatively short middle movement was a needed contrast to the opening nightmare, a song reminiscent of Mahler, who once called those melodies “raisins on the cake”. But for the finale, the Shostakovich bout of Mahleria-----make for some electrifying episodes.

Boreyko took the funeral march at gentle pace of Mahler’s First Symphony country funeral. After that, though, he had the impossible challenge of working with mushy dance tunes, treakly piccolos, a running trombone commentary, all in a harmless C Major. But that precedes a sudden change to minor key and to a Mahler-like chorale marked in my score “fffff” which is as enigmatic yet emotional as the rest of the work.

Going out, I heard one woman ask, quite seriously “What did he mean by all this?” Shostakovich meant us to listen, that’s all. And if Boreyko didn’t give it a Promethean grandeur, he gave us a giant tapestry upon which we could fasten our own meanings.

Harry Rolnick



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