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Musical Archaeology

New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art
03/20/1999 -  
Johann Fasch: Orchestral Suite #2
Franz Joseph Haydn: Cello Concerto in C Major
Giorgio Ghedini: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra, "Il Belprato"
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony #33

Mela Tenenbaum (violin)
David Geringas (cello)
Philharmonia Virtuosi
Richard Kapp (conductor)

Many cities in America have excellent orchestras and some have remarkable chamber groups, but few have significantly professional chamber orchestras capable of playing a large repertoire from the masterpieces of the eighteenth century era, when the smaller size orchestra was common, to the works of the modern age written for compact ensembles. New York is blessed with two such groups, Orpheus, the conductorless wonder, and the Philharmonia Virtuosi, ably conducted by Richard Kapp and led by the extremely talented concertmistress Mela Tenenbaum. The Virtuosi are the resident orchestra of the Metropolitan Museum and also spend considerable time touring aboard ocean liners such as the QEII. They record frequently and are traversing a large part of the violin concerto repertoire with their nimble-fingered star.

One of the strengths of Kapp is his collector's passion for the musically obscure. The orchestra often performs works that have been forgotten by a public zealous to anoint certain composers as Gods and others as Monsters. Johann Fasch is a good example. Record collectors of the 1960's will know Fasch from the Telefunken Archiv series but most of the general public will not be at all familiar with his work. As Kapp explained in his little talk (he is adept at communicating with his audience, unlike the wooden figures who guide so many of our major orchestras), Fasch worked at a court that was far from any music publisher and composed pieces as one time throwaway events. His orchestral suites are particularly noteworthy for their wind and brass writing as was adeptly displayed by this group of individual soloists forged into a chamber orchestra. Fasch composed with Handelian delight and the glorious optimism came through in this very pleasing performance.

The Haydn Cello Concerto in C, with its partner in D, is the first significant piece written for the instrument and orchestra. Haydn's employer, Prince Esterhazy, played a variant of the violoncello known as the baryton and the court composer wrote over 175 works for this now obsolete instrument (there is one on display at the Met Museum) and several pieces for the cello as well. The piece is now performed in three distinct styles: the schmaltzy, overly Romantic, heavy vibrato version (Mischa Maisky is the biggest offender), the "drained of all emotion" period instrument style now so mysteriously popular, and the method by which it has been performed since its inclusion in the standard repertoire after its resurrection in the 1960's, a straight presentation of the music with some vibrato judiciously applied. Mr. Geringas is intelligent enough to perform in the most unaffected manner possible, allowing the music to shine through. The performance was strong enough to survive an awkward moment when the orchestra came in too early and stepped on the ending of his unusual cadenza, but their was acoustical (and visible) tension between soloist and conductor for the remainder of the piece.

Not to take anything away from these marvelous performers, but the highlight of any concert at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium is intermission. Since we are on the Temple of Dendur side of the museum, the interlude allows one to peruse the world's greatest Egyptology collection. I spent my time in the room which features the offering table of King Amenemhat I (c1970BC) and various friezes depicting the ruler as a falcon. The museum is closed by then and the nervous guards don't want you to stray too far afield but some savvy patrons can explore a bygone era and still travel back in time to catch the second half of the program (although it is difficult to make the mental transition so quickly).

Fittingly, the Virtuosi presented us intrepid explorers with an unearthed treasure of their own. I first encountered the music of Ghedini while preparing a radio program on works of American literature which had been set to music. Ghedini, known if at all to music historians as the primary teacher of Luciano Berio, wrote a cantata on themes from Moby Dick (as well as quoting it in the "Albatross" Concerto I learned from Mr. Kapp's informative introduction) and an opera of Billy Budd contemporaneously with that of Britten. His Concerto "Il Belprato", written for Michaelangelo Abbado (father of Claudio), is a neo-Classical work which requires great dexterity from the soloist and he could not have had a more convincing advocate than Ms. Tenenbaum, whose star is on the rise. She has an amazing ability to negotiate the most finger-breaking passages with apparent ease and always displays a learned sense of musicianship. This is the fifth work of Ghedini to see the light of day under the baton of Maestro Kapp and he is to be commended for such diligent research.

The real pleasure of the evening was being able to relax and hear a splendid performance of the Mozart. This is where the Philharmonia Virtuosi really shine and play as one the beautiful works of the past with a healthy disregard for trendy ideas of "historical accuracy". With a generous blend of the Classical and the Modern, this orchestra always presents a satisfying and challenging evening of music and, like the museum itself, allows the patron to both revel in the familiar and dare to touch the unknown.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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