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Not Another Two-Viola Joke

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
04/13/2011 -  & April 14*, 16, 2011
Franz Liszt: Les Préludes
Sofia Gubaidulina: Two Paths (A Dedication to Mary and Martha) (*)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

Cynthia Phelps, Rebecca Young (Violas)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, Daniel Boico (*) (Conductor)

C. Phelps (© New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Yet another viola joke.

Ten years ago, two gorgeous young viola players and the whole New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Kurt Masur walk into a bar...

Okay, it was a bar of music. And okay again it was 24 minutes filled with bars of music.

Anyhow, not only do they come out unscathed, but Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, Two Paths (A Dedication to Mary and Martha) enriches the viola repertory, and has become yet another mysterious, hypnotic and spellbinding work from this now 80-year-old Russian master.

The same two violists, occupying the first seats of the Phil’s viola section, are performing the same work this week. Kurt Masur, whose viola-player wife had commissioned the piece, loaned his baton to Assistant Conductor Daniel Boico (the Maestro’s eye infection precludes his conducting it). And while I was not living in America for the first performance, the work produced an unerring spell to my ears.

One caveat, is that the work was dedicated to the New Testament’s Mary and Martha. The former (reason some annotators) is a lover of eternal bliss, the latter a lover of the earth. Thus, at crucial moments in this series of variations, the second viola (Martha) plays downward on her instrument, while the first viola (Mary) soars to the heavens. And at the beginning, I was trying to follow the personalities through the viola playing.

That was a severe error. For after the harsh orchestral theme, the two violas were so luscious and beautiful in themselves that trying to pin a story on them (à la Strauss’s cello in Don Quixote) would be meaningless. Instead, one was initially curious, then enticed into the web of sounds produced here.

R. Young (© New York Philharmonic Orchestra)

We have all heard Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young in the ensemble, and I had been bowled over by her solo in the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante two years ago. Hearing her work with Ms. Young, one felt this was more like the Bach Double Violin Concerto, but with a sweep and grandeur that was equal to our own times.

A French critic described the viola as “a philosopher, ready to help others without calling attention to itself.” That is a comforting adage, but when two violas come out of their mellow anonymity and work together, the sound can be warm, touching and, especially within its range, very human.

Maestro Masur was on the podium for two 19th Century works, beginning with a work that can be conducted as a series of climaxes. Mr. Masur, though, knows that Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes is a unitary work. Yes, for the finish, the Phil pulled out all the stops. Before that, though, Mr. Masur led the orchestra through some very graceful moments.

With the last two nights of music by Ligeti, Cage, and other music of our time still ringing in my ears, the first movement of the Brahms First seemed somewhat stodgy, but Mr. Masur has conducted this innmerable times in his 60 years on the podium. Here, he made it direct, masculine and convincing. In the finale, the Maestro painted broad brush strokes with the orchestra for a towering climax.

Harry Rolnick



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