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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/19/1998 -  
William Schuman: A Song of Orpheus
Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

Carter Brey (cello)
New York Philharmonic
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Many of my readers, particularly those in Europe, may not be familiar with William Schuman. Even those of us in New York where Schuman held sway as president of the Juilliard School for so many years are not that conversant with his large orchestral output. Schuman thoroughly changed the curriculum at Juilliard, changing it from essentially a trade school for performers and adding courses in music history and theory as well as a smattering of academics, believing in his heart that great musicians must have a sound philosophical background to rise above the level of technical craftsmen. Concert-goers at Alice Tully are greeted by a bas-relief of the face of Schuman but this may be the extent of his fame with the bulk of the New York audience. Actually he wrote very powerful symphonies that were championed by Ormandy and Bernstein but in the past thirty years he has faded from the repertoire.

A Song of Orpheus is a thoughtful piece for cello and orchestra which exploits the similar sonorities of the solo instrument and the harp. Evocative of the beginning of the second act of Gluck's Orfeo the harp represents the lyre of Orpheus and is aped by the strumming sound of the cello (ala Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet). Mr. Brey is principal of the orchestra and played his lyrical part to its fullest, rich and burnished in tone and secure in the many passages for high register. The tone poem is ultimately a meandering work with only a few good ideas but Schuman knows when to stop and the entire quasi-concerto lasts only about 20 minutes. The beautiful passagework of Sherry Sylar, associate principal oboe, made a fine backdrop for the legato phrasing of the soloist. Mr. Thielemann, principal conductor of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, was a good accompanist, holding the orchestra in check and allowing much temporal freedom to the wandering cello.

The main offering was Ein Alpensymphonie. This is the largest orchestra in the entire history of symphonic music. There are five horns onstage and at least eight more off (the score calls for 20 in total but this is usually tempered a bit), three Wagner tubas, a tenorhorn, a heckelphone, five percussionists, including two sets of tympani, a wind machine, a thundersheet, two bass tubas, two harps and an organ! Everyone works on Alpensymphonie night. All veteran Philharmonic audience members know how the game is played. If the recalcitrant orchestra doesn't like or respect the conductor (as they apparently did not care for Colin Davis last week) then they play sloppily and even provide a phlegmatic visual approach. But if they connect with a guest maestro then they truly can sound exceptional. Such was the lucky case last night. Mr. Thielemann has obviously gained the respect of this crew and since their erstwhile "leader" is hardly ever here (Kurt Masur is such a stranger that there is a picture of Sir Colin on the front of the general program) it is important to retain guests that can awaken this sleeping giant.

And awaken him he did. The Night and Sunrise were beautifully played and the Ascent, with its hunt sequence, was effectively punctuated by the offstage brass. The tender violin solos were lovingly played by Glenn Dicterow. I worried during the softer parts because Mr. Thielemann did not bring the ensemble down to a true piano, it was more of a mezzo-piano, and it occurred to me that he would not have enough of a contrast for the later loud sections. However, in his conception the louds are very strong, really a triple fortissimo, and he even exhorted more from Roland Kohloff's tympani and received it, although by the height of the storm there was an inevitable sacrifice of intonation. Still, the orchestra produced a remarkable extended loud voice that was thrilling and properly exhilarating at this high altitude. The horns were brilliant throughout, especially Philip Myers who was given the difficult task of those many solos which begin on a ridiculously high note for a cold embouchure (he nailed them all). As we began our descent we all felt that we had accomplished something significant. At the very end I was physically startled (I really was wrapped up in this performance) by a personal idiosyncrasy of the conductor's conception. Instead of the famous slide from the penultimate note to the last, Mr. Thielemann stopped the strings and inserted a pause between these two sounds. A jarring although quiet conclusion, not necessarily bad but truly bizarre. Mr. Thielemann's gestures were impressive throughout: clear but unobtrusive hand signals and dramatic but sparing bodily thrusts that communicated his wants to the ensemble without disturbing or distracting the listeners. He is used to the opera pit and appears to be a no-nonsense practitioner of the conductor's art. His large-scale conception bodes well for his first Ring cycle back home in 1999.

It was heartening to see so many young people in the audience (it was some event called "Young New York for the Philharmonic") and they gave this stirring performance a well deserved standing ovation, as opposed to the regular patrons who appear to be doing so but are really only putting on their coats. Everyone seemed to be moved and a performance like this reminded me of why I go to concerts in the first place.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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