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From Anguish to Angst in Four Easy Lessons

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
09/25/2008 -  & Sept. 26*, 27
Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Lorin Maazel: Music for Flute and Orchestra, Opus 11
Pierre Boulez: Pli selon pli: Improvisation sur Mallarmé II
Leonard Bernstein: The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Robert Langevin (Flute), Alan Baer (Tenor Tuba), Joyce Wang (Piano), Kiera Duffy (Soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Conductor)

Joyce Yang (© Oh Seok Hoon)

Esteemed conductors and eternal composers rarely fit into the same body, but the names Boulez, Mahler and Bernstein have, in their times, been equally venerated for both. Lorin Maazel is of course best known as a conductor, but with his Music For Flute, and works of the first three—all of whom were revered for their work with the New York Philharmonic, an imaginative program employed those four names.
Granted, the antediluvian concertgoer by my side echoed many in the audience by disapprovingly calling it “daring” (after hearing the Boulez). But I redacted her description. “Challenging would be more appropriate,” I said, making her an adjective she couldn’t refuse. Under my baleful eye she had to agree.

The challenging quartet began with a marvelously transparent performance of Mahler’s Adagio from his unfinished last symphony. With such an eclectic conductor as Maestro Maazel, one tends to forget what a wonderfully warm and understanding leader he is in Mahler. This was rarely a tragic Mahler at all, though. What had been a cry from the heart, a cry of anguish, became under this baton a smooth almost reconciling Mahler. The strings (especially the cellos) played with lustrous beauty, the great climax sounded more like an organ than I’ve ever heard it, and Maazel turned it from pain to paean.

It was a singular interpretation, perhaps not what the composer would have liked, but it soothed the heart as well as the ear.

Ironically, Maazel described his 13-year-old Music For Flute as “saying who you really are, and anybody sensitive to music will discover a lot about you that you may not necessarily want known.” That would have applied to the other three composers here, but there was little in this difficult, original jocular piece which plumbed deeply into anybody’s psyche.

Seven connected movements went through some orchestral gymnastics with the greatest spirit. A cadenza played by the Phil’s own flautist, Robert Langevin, but it was accompanied by castanets and “an Indian rain tube.” On this soggy Friday, that was hardly what was needed, but it fit the general spirit of the thing.

For reasons unknown, Alan Baer, the Phil’s own tuba player was given neither credit in the program nor asked to stand separately , but his frequent solos were hardly in the line of “Tubby the Tuba” fun. They were graceful, elegant, with a legato line most rare.

After the intermission, one of the few Boulez works to reach “mainstream” was given a wonderful performance by soprano Keira Duffy. This was the original chamber version of one section from the hour-long piece, but to the open ears is the most exciting tintinnabulation of timbres. Wooden and metal percussion came close to anarchic nature, the piano and harp were delicate and fixed, the celesta, vibraphone and bells had echoing overtones. And Ms. Duffy, with her soaring soprano, stood back from the chamber orchestra so that her sounds could blend in or sometimes overcome them.

The sonorities were given their full brunt from the conductor—not just delicate airy sounds but exuberant and full-bodied. The result was proof again that Boulez changed the face of music.

Finally, conductor Maazel joined the ranks which are playing Leonard Bernstein this season. And there can never be too much of him. Whatever the work, Bernstein always surprises with such exciting movement, bouncing, jazzy, introspective and always heartfelt from that most encompassing of hearts.

After the first three pieces, Maestro Maazel didn’t let himself go here. The orchestra was on a tight leash, but that was the tautness which Bernstein probably needed to bring out all the angst that its title implied. Auden himself didn’t like the work very much.) Joyce Wang’s piano solo was simply a terrific performance of a work which embraces every emotion from the dirge to some underplayed but unmistakable bluesy riffs.

Harry Rolnick



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