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The Youth’s Magic Hands

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
01/15/2009 -  & January 16, 20, 2009
Oliver Knussen: Violin Concerto, Opus 30
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Pinchas Zukerman (Violin)
New York Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (Conductor)

G. Dudamel (© Richard Reinsdorf)

If this concert has been a game, the competitors would have been Men and Gods. Obviously the Gods win.

Oliver Knussen has always been an delightful composer, subscribing to no school except the joyous. Like Ravel and Ibert, he loves the exotic, the fanciful, even the childish His massive output—whether concertos, symphonies, operas or simple fanfares—have a tingling glistening beauty to them. On the other hand, Gustav Mahler lived in an age—before the Great War and the first Weapons of Mass Destruction—when men were allowed to think of themselves as potential Prometheuses, and he wrote music exemplifying our species’ greatness.

So it might have been unfair to pair Knussen’s fizzy Violin Concerto and its dedicatee with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I say “might” in both senses, since Venezuelan super-conductor Gustav Dudamel led the New York Philharmonic to a mighty triumph in both. Inevitably, though, once the Mahler started, the Knussen resonances drifted far away.

Still, this is unfair. The Violin Concerto does not have the originality of his Horn Concerto or the bewitching sounds of his operas. But the 17-minute work puts the violinist on stage for virtually every bar, giving enough technical challenges to make the piece reasonably fascinating. Knussen describes the violin as “a tightrope walker progressing along a decidedly unstable high wire strung across the span that separates the opening and closing of the piece”. That metaphor is typical Knussen, where circuses and magic come naturally.

It isn’t typical Pinchas Zukerman, for whom the work was written in 2001. He is a more melodic romantic soloist, never quite attuned to that much modernity. But Knussen played to Zukerman’s strengths with a lovely cadenza-like opening, a very lyrical second movement, and a final “Gigue” that played to Zukerman’s undoubted command of his instrument. As was Knussen’s mastery of all the instruments. A complete battery of percussion is used as naturally as a string choir, he dances between choirs gracefully, and leaves all the room in the world for Zukerman to play some lovely arched melodies, breaking them up into atomic fragments, before bringing them together with childish joviality.

After the intermission, though, it was time for the grown-ups. Except that in his conducting skills and his temperament, Gustavo Dudamel is magnificently youthful, and he took Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to the most soaring optimistic finish.

The beginning was less than auspicious, with a few major slips from the trumpet’s very first fanfare. These things happen, and it wasn’t helped with an opening funeral march which—while “strict like a cortège” in Mahler’s words—drooped just a fraction. In that almost infinitesimal pacing, though, the Sicilian-style funeral music was all too apparent. This was not to last, for when Maestro Dudamel picked up the tempo for the second part of the movement, the orchestra began to shine, and the fullness of the movement took shape.

It was another soloist, though, horn player Philip Meyers, who propelled the scherzo—virtually a horn concerto itself—to a brilliant standard. The famous Adagietto, for strings and harp, is now so famous (see “Coda I” below) that one almost wants to eliminate it. That, though, doesn’t take in considerati8on the New York Phil strings, which are possibly the best in the world. They made it sing.

It was Maestro Dudamel, though, who took the last movement and made it his very own. Hands vibrating, body almost dancing, pleading, virtually singing with the orchestra—like the early Ozawa rather than Bernstein—he gave it a shattering finale, partly Titan, partly Man, but with the joy of the conductor’s own heaven-sent youth and glory together.

CODA I: Why did Luchino Visconti use the Mahler Adagietto for the theme music of his film Death in Venice? This was no simple artistic choice. Before making the film, Visconti had heard that Thomas Mann had thought of Mahler as “the personification of the Artist”. He wrote to a distinguished writer on Mahler for confirmation, and in the research, a new letter was found showing that Mann had almost certainly based the character of the conductor in his novella—if not the other proclivities—on Mahler. Thus the music.

CODA II: The honored guests in the audience last night were a delegation of the Association of American Coughers. They were scattered throughout the auditorium, and demonstrating a variety of coughs and wheezes of every volume and style, usually in the softest movements of the music. At one point between the movements, conductor Dudamel paused and held up a hand so they would get control of themselves. Had I been him, I would have pulled a dead fish out of my tuxedo jacket, tossed it to the crowds, and shouted out, “Take that, ya damned walruses!!”

Harry Rolnick



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