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Miracle on the Strings

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
07/14/2011 -  July 16, 17, 2011
John Adams: Violin Concerto
Anton Bruckner: Symphony Number 7 in E Major (1883 score, revised by Leopold Nowak)

Leila Josefowicz (Violin)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Musical Director and Conductor)

L. Josefowicz (© J. Henry Fair)

Conductor Franz Welser-Möst had no surprises for his initial Bruckner-Adams concert on Wednesday. The John Adams work was suitably exciting, the Bruckner symphony was appropriately serious, the playing was superb. For the second concert, the unexpected happened. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, one of the best known, was almost–I repeat almost–overshadowed by John Adams’ Violin Concerto, a work of such dazzling proportions, played with such astonishing foreworks by the young Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz, that it almost made the Bruckner an afterthought.

That is, of course, an exaggeration. But the Violin Concerto, written almost two decades ago but new to this listener, must be put in the Adams pantheon with Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. If one must bring in Dr. Atomic, it is only became the soloist must defy gravity, split musical atoms and explode the universe of musical sounds.

Which is exactly what Ms. Josefowicz accomplished. The opening movement began with sounds not associated with Mr. Adams, those of a conventional violin concerto. But as Ms. Josefowicz made her way through the orchestral anarchy, soaring high, plucking pizzicati, whizzing glissandi and playing melodies which resonated and echoed, one felt that the Adams velocity was more and more apparent.

I suppose the movement ended with a short cadenza–but the entire movement was a cadenza, so this may have been superfluous. The slower chaconne was highlighted by the Cleveland Orchestra’s great trumpet player Michael Sachs (who later shone in an understated group of solos for the Bruckner). It didn’t exactly give time for Ms. Josefowicz to take much of a breather–but she did manage, with hardly a thought, to tear off a bit of hair from the bow of her Guaneri del Gesù before going on.

The toccata was predictable–and impossible. Nobody believed what they were hearing, but the ease of the soloist–who has played it innumerable times–made it sound almost simple. The music and the performance could only be described as Gargantuan sounds from the wings of a nightingale. (A terrible metaphor, to be honest, but one is left with little logic after such a show.)

After this, Mr. Welser-Möst’s Bruckner was a more relaxing breath of fresh air. His heaven is that of a good Catholic, with the wonders of the Lord (or in this case, mighty brass and a rather stirring string section) giving us a taste of the Afterlife. No infernal Mahlerian chords, no Berlioz-style notes of foreboding, all is spectroscopic diffused light.

Mr. Welser-Möst didn’t need to exaggerate anything. That long, long opening line was soothed into existence, and the wondrous second movement–the splendid three-note theme was repeated each time with more emphasis, more glory. (I think the between-movement applause was actually heartfelt, inevitable.)

Nothing was flashy about the scherzo: a leisurely trumpet solo, a rustic answer, a graceful trio. This was all that was needed before the Finale. Mr. Welser-Möst again let the music do the talking, never exaggerating even the pauses, and allowing the great chorale to grow and glow into the radiance which could only have emanated from the secret life of a shy rustic Austrian organ-player.

Harry Rolnick



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