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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
08/11/2000 -  
Luigi Boccherini: Symphony # 4
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 23; Violin Concerto # 3
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 1

Ivan Moravec (piano)
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Joseph Swensen (conductor)

The idea of "Classical Music" is a relatively modern one, certainly not part of the consciousness of any of its composers. Yet from an historical perspective it is apparent even upon a cursory hearing that all of this music possesses at least a trace of Deist optimism, of joy in order most eloquently expressed by Haydn in his Creation. Certainly all of the music of the second half of the eighteenth century has this common thread and its "best of all possible worlds" philosophy unites the great Viennese masterworks with the more common music of amateurs like Franklin and Jefferson. Last evening at Lincoln Center, we were all immersed in these glorious waters like willing initiates waiting to be baptized.

Joseph Swensen is a young conductor of high energy. His bouncy podium style was perfect for the Boccherini and its breezy Mediterranean flavor. Although not a composer to whom I warm easily, the Italian so imitative of his master's voice that he was dubbed "Haydn's wife" was surely able to make his audiences feel all right about themselves and their surroundings. It is hard to resist this ebullient music although easy to digest it fully with no unnecessary cranial activity. The MMF orchestra sounded crisp and clear and performed this "AM radio top 40" music perhaps even better than it deserves.

Writing about music can be very difficult because we critics have only words to use as our tools while the great composers have the infinitely more expressive language of tones. It is really not possible to describe how transporting Ivan Moravec's performance was at this concert (although my companion's phrase "beyond beautiful" seems to come the closest for me) but suffice it to say that this was splendid music making on a highly exalted level. One of the truly great concerti, the Mozart 23 has just enough sadness to contrast with the comfort of the era, producing that eerily modern feel unique to the boy genius. Moravec is an aristocratic pianist and communicates with a profound grace and elegance. Orchestra matching him stroke for stroke, this was a performance for the ages and roundly appreciated by the capacity crowd.

Not so the Violin Concerto. Contrasted with the previous work, this piece came up empty, devoid of inner strength and depth of feeling and presented (or so it seemed) only as filler material. Disappointing was the stodgy playing of Leonidas Kavakos, who brought nothing to the party but an accurate reading of the notes. The series of violin concerti need great vitality of performance to enliven them (they are hardly the jewels in Mozart's crown) and this elan was sadly absent last evening.

I reserved my judgment of Swensen for the Beethoven. Coming down squarely on the ultra-Romantic side, the colorful aspirant directed an exciting, if perhaps excessive, version of the Symphony # 1. He understands the initial imagery of a flower opening very well and presided over a loving rendition of a veritable bouquet of the voices of Spring. However, all of his phrasing was broad and long, his dynamics sensually contrasting and, although this was exciting in itself, it seemed a far cry from the idiom of the early Beethovenian era. Not to open the "period instrument debate", but some type of restraint is still appropriate in the performance of the narrowly "Classical" and Swensen's approach (like Mengelberg's idiosyncratic versions) is too Romantic, as if the revolutionary innovations of the later Beethoven had already changed the face of music forever. Yes, there are seeds of these sweeping changes in the score, but in Swensen's hands the garden has been overfertilized. Chalk it up to the spirit of youth; this was thrilling music breathlessly played and I still prefer it to the overly dry "authentic" versions. A good time was had by all and the ubiquitous New York standing ovation was, at least on this evening, well within the spirit of such joyous interaction between performers and audience. A little infectious naivete goes a long way.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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