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Digestible Music for a Dyspeptic Weekend

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
11/22/2011 -  & November 25, 26, 29, 2011
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 33, K. 319
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, opus 15

Sheryl Staples (Violin), Liang Wang (Oboe)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane (Conductor, Harpsichord and Piano

J. Kahane (© Michael Amsler)

The old “Borsht Belt” comedians were never satisfied to confine themselves to their own schticks. When singers would come on, the comics would peep from behind the curtains and sing along. If a juggler juggled, the comic would walk out and do some juggling on his own.

Jeffrey Kahane is no comic. He’s an accomplished pianist, harpsichordist and conductor, and his piano recitals here have been superb. But last night, he hogged the show. He conducted while playing harpsichord in a Bach concerto. He played piano, wrote his own cadenza and conducted from his instrument in a Beethoven concerto. And in the most controversial piece, Mr. Kahane conducted and played harpsichord in a Middle Period Mozart symphony.

That time element is essential, since–while I haven’t seen the original score–I doubt whether Mozart at this time in his life, would have specified a cembalo of any kind. Then again, few except Haydn were terribly scrupulous in their orchestration (that is, the scores would be written well, but, as in a good restaurant, substitutions were allowed). I couldn’t actually hear the harpsichord in the Mozart, but Mr. Kahane probably duplicated the double-bass parts in the climatic cadences.

This hardly wrecked the rarely heard symphony sonically. After all, despite the fairly large string section here, the work resembles chamber music. No large symphonic canvas, it could have easily been a pleasant octet.

Mr. Kahane conducted and performed with no fuss, allowing the large contingent of strings to shine in the second movement. And, while hardly Catskill humor, the finale was pure Rossini jig. Mozart at his most jovial, a spirited happy performance for the whole orchestra.

S. Staples (© New York Philharmonic)

The Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe was played by that most stalwart wonderful First Oboe of the orchestra, Liang Wang, and the assistant First Violin, Sheryl Staples. The soloists played beautifully together, though they weren’t entirely in synch with the orchestra for the outside movements.

L. Wang (© New York Philharmonic)

Nothing wrong with that. This was secular Bach, and spontaneity was called for. It was certainly a vibrant show.

Like the Mozart, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was a debatable show visually, though Mr. Kahane’s playing was smooth, faultless, rippling in the best Classical sense. But conducting and playing was not the most judicious way of doing things.

Yes, Beethoven played and conducted the work at the first performance. But the conductor was hardly an eminent personage in the late 18th Century. Beethoven must have given the initial downbeat and ended the final chords. (The remainder of his job from the piano was probably glaring at the orchestra, with that inimitable Beethoven glare.)

Mr. Kahane performed an almost frightening trapeze act. He actually conducted as much as possible. Did the left hand have a rest for a measure? The orchestra was cued in. Did Beethoven leave a space between two quarter-notes? Mr. Kahane lost no opportunity to lead the New York Philharmonic.

The balance of two hands in two different jobs was challenging enough. But Mr. Kahane pulled it off, because his technique is so faultless. Still, one kept thinking that something might go wrong, he might confuse the conducting with the performing and then...

Well, the results would not be happy.

The last movement is marked Allegro, but Beethoven has so many delicious contrasting themes in the rondo that a caring conductor makes space so they have time to “speak.” One needs breathing space for the bumptious, quiet, affecting little tunes here (like the Mozart last night, the finale was pure joy), though Mr. Kahane gave it a marathon far too athletic push.

Possibly his California upbringing makes physical energy a prime requirement. Us New Yorkers like to sit like couch potatoes and pay attention to the details.

Mr. Kahane is always an enjoyable performer, though, absolutely fitting for a holiday week. After Friday’s post-turkey dyspepsia, this repeat concerts should offer music which is totally, easily digestible.

Harry Rolnick



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