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A Tale of Two Chuzpahs

New York
Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center
03/13/2008 -  and March 15
Marc Neikrug: Quintessence: Symphony No. 2 (World Premiere)
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Glenn Dicterow (violin), Steven Stuckey (Moderator) Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

Last night’s two works had two titles which could only be described as the ultimate in audacity—or more exactly, chuzpah. Richard Strauss at the age of 34, wrote “The Life of a Hero.” The hero was himself, a one-man übermensch, and he not only quoted his own compositions, gave his wife the character of a solo violin, but imitated, in tenor and bass tubas, the name of his adversary, Dr. Hanslick.

But what about Marc Neikrug, whose Symphony Number 2 received its world premiere, conducted by its dedicatee, Alan Gilbert? Neikrug, without explanation, calls this work “Quintessence”. Personally, I might have chosen Beethoven’s Ninth or Mozart’s Jupiter. But hey! Neikrug is a highly esteemed composer, pianist and administrator, so who am I to denigrate his choice of words?

More seriously, Neikrug is such an accomplished writer that this 20-minute work was, in structure and scoring, taut, tough and with some exquisite moments which deserve a re-hearing.

In one sense, it was a very conservative work, with the single movement clearly divided into four symphonic sections. But each section partakes of themes—for yes, he does have recognizable themes—from sections before and after. Thus, the recognizable buzzing of the Scherzo makes its way for a moment into the first movement, a little solo cello motive divides up the others, and the eulogistic slow movement both foretells and proceeds throughout the work.

The Symphony took some concentrated listening, since Neikrug is a highly economical composer. But one knew the first notes in the deepest bass of the orchestra that the themes would flow organically from the half-step motif, and this they did. Not having seen a score before, it was a challenge to spot the themes, watching how a whirling woodwind duet was transformed for the string later on. Or listening to a beautiful eulogy just for strings.

The scherzo had been previewed before the concert in an introductory interview. But Neikrug’s sense of rhythm was accented here in a disjointed waltz theme and a ravishing set of Ravel-style cadence.

The work, which had announced itself with low brasses blazing ended slowly, softly, as if all the resources had been exhausted. No, this is hardly the "quintessence" of symphonies, but it is always fascinating to hear how Neikrug develops his themes with such skill.

Like Neikrug, Richard Strauss offered in Ein Heldenleben one movement divided into sections with repeated themes in each section. But Strauss had a linear story to tell, and each measure had the goal of extolling the glories of….yes, Richard Strauss.

It is still not only a mammoth work, with moments of fierce sound effects (the war was ferocious), unabashed sentiment (Glenn Dicterow playing the solo violin with enthusiastic élan), and the climax, which is rivaled only by the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Most impressive of all was Alan Gilbert’s conducting here, which was sometimes breathtaking. With a piece of so many moods, Gilbert never held back on any of them, making his orchestra, himself and of course the music speak wonders.




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