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Thread of Elegance

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
08/04/2000 -  
Georg Frederic Handel: Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7
Johann Sebastian Bach (arr. Webern): Ricercare from A Musical Offering
Arnold Schoenberg: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9

Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
Tokyo String Quartet
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Gerard Schwarz (conductor)

One of the great musical venues of New York is not a performance center at all but rather a residence, the distinctive fin-de-siecle hotel on Broadway and 73rd Street known as the Ansonia. Because of its soundproof rooms, it has been a favorite of musicians since its debut in 1904 and has housed, at various times, Chaliapin, Caruso, Stravinsky, Melchior and Toscanini. The young Gerard Schwarz learned his craft here under the tutelage of the unjustly forgotten Paul Creston and has always reserved a spot for twentieth century music in whatever activity he has led during his distinguished career. As leader of the Seattle and New York Chamber Symphonies, Schwarz singlehandedly resurrected the compositions of Creston, Schuman and Diamond and has produced fine recordings of the modern repertoire notable for their strong brass work (he started out as a trumpet prodigy). It would be easy for the director of the annual summer Mostly Mozart Festival to program only pretty potboilers for a relaxed crowd, but Schwarz finds a way to keep us aware of the commonality of our musical centuries without overwhelming us in dissonance.

Another famous denizen of the Ansonia was Arnold Schoenberg, who lived at the old dame in the interval between his two disparate lives in Berlin and California. Immediately before moving to New York, Schoenberg spent his first expatriate summer in Paris where he dabbled in tonality as a natural corollary to his dodecaphonic system, a further codifying of intervallic relationships designed to introduce a new harmonic structural overlay to Western music. After writing a cello work for his friend Pablo Casals, Schoenberg tackled the one Concerto Grosso of Handel from the most famous set which had no concertante parts and skillfully blended the sounds of a string quartet into the tutti of the now augmented orchestra. The resulting work is one of his most sparkling rarities (in an ouevre of rarities) and the Mostly Mozart Festival presented it last evening in its proper intellectual environment by performing it brilliantly after Handel's original. The Tokyo String Quartet, now only 50 percent Japanese, were exceptional soloists, the two violins and viola standing in Baroque fashion, enlivening the proceedings considerably and turning the soporific Handel into an eloquent statement advocating the innovations of the modern masters.

A natural coupling to these didactic pieces was the Webern arrangement of Bach. A masterstroke of klangfarben, this timbral essay by the medievalist and miniaturist is normally a very powerful statement, but, in Schwarz's hands, became a kinder and gentler work, more of a meditation than an offertorium. The brass was muted and subdued and lovingly shaped by this specialist in crooks and embouchure. One could sense the silken connection between the music of the past and the consciousness of the present.

All this fine music making was but a mere prelude to the star turn of the evening. Whenever I watch Alicia de Larrocha I wonder why other pianists expend so much needless energy to perform their tasks. Madame, now in her 71st year of concertizing, is a living, breathing essay in economy of movement, never lifting a digit without an expressed purpose and never moving an extraneous part of her body at any point. She embodies (in both senses of the word) the elegance of Classicism and imbues upon her stately performances the air of absolute authenticity. She is herself a symbol of the continuous thread of musical elegance and, when she someday in the hopefully far distant future passes, an entire era will disappear with her. She is filled with elan and never hesitates even a fraction of a beat, playing her cadenzas without rubato and introducing the third movement even before we were collectively finished with our coughing orgy. In her delicate finger movement, the bombast of her colleagues is remembered, if at all, only as excess. Here is Mozart at his most refined and we are all thankful for the scholarship. Mostly Mozart, an event which could easily degenerate into an eighteenth century pops concert, is instead a fine example of intelligent programming presented with a great deal of thought and love.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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