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Capital Gains

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/07/2008 -  
Mason Bates: Liquid Interfaces (New York Première)
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Modest Mussorgsky (arr. Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Piano)
National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (Conductor)

It was an American scandal that the capital of this country never had its own orchestra until 1931, and that it took many decades—as well as a fiery Russian conductor—to build it up to the high standards it has today. Probably the Marine Band sufficed for a long time, jazz was more an American institution than those old European guys, and Washington D.C., a city dominated by lawyers, politicians and crooks (but I repeat myself) hardly needed more fiddlers.

For the last 12 years, though, after Mstislav Rostropovich brought the National Symphony Orchestra into shape, Leonard Slatkin has done a more than creditable job, not only in excellent playing, but in commissioning American works of high standards.

One of them, Liquid Interfaces, opened the concert, and if nothing else, the size of curriculum vitae of Mason Bates and the size of the orchestra, need detailing. The 31-year-old composer has not only received numerous prizes and grants here and in Europe, but he is an electronics expert, a San Francisco DJ, a man who understands hip-hop as much as Hindemith, and is a polymath of the first order. His orchestra here is too large to give in detail, but it includes, along with a Mahler-sized ensemble, a huge percussion group, two harmonicas, glass harmonica, slide guitar, wind machine, and of course the “electronica”: an electronic drum pad and laptop which was played by the composer himself.

Add to this a very detailed description of the four movements, all based around the four seasons of Berlin’s Wannsee, where the composer had lived. It was a masterful creation in a certain way. I did not catch the particular instruments in any way, since the orchestra’s massive sounds and even more intimate moments were made for ensemble color more than solo work. The inclusion of jazzy syncopation, and some distant Dixieland (an homage to the tragedy of water-drowned New Orleans) was clever, even touching. Nor was the electrical work little more than appropriate sound effects. The thunder, the raindrops (deftly imitated by crystalline notes by electric and orchestra together), and the actual sounds from the Sea itself.

So, did this “year in the life of a body of water” have a resemblance to the water-pictures of Wagner or Debussy or, more likely Smetana’s Moldau? The result was a more mundane resemblance. I hope the composer does not take this as an insult, but the result was more like Ferdé Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, with the right sounds of nature in the right place, the songs tuneful, the birdsongs and crashes deft, yet somehow not up to the brilliance of either the composer or his orchestra.

The following work, Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto was once labeled “the life and adventures of a melody,” and the great French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet brought both to the work. As a pure showpiece, it was lively and with adventurous in rhythms toward the end. Most impressive, though, was the slow section, a duet with the National Symphony’s cellist David Hardy that was truly touching.

The Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition was touched up a bit by Leonard Slatkin, to be more faithful to the original piano work. Adding one more Promenade, mainly for brass choir, was not very important. But the two measures added to the Chick Ballet were delightful.

The work ended with the usual mighty sounds of the whole orchestra, which somehow under Ravel’s most delicate inspiration, never even approached the bombastic.

Harry Rolnick



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