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The Double Felix

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/03/2000 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Four Choral Works; Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
John De Lancie (speaker)
American Boychoir
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

History has never really known what to do with Felix Mendelssohn. Too wealthy to ever be a full-time composer, he dabbled in musical affairs and established both a major orchestra (the Gewandhaus) and school (the Leipzig Conservatory). His rediscovery of Bach is the seminal event in 19th century musicology. He composed much of his glorious output before the age of twenty and contributed some of the most charming music ever written to the rich folios of early Romanticism. Many of his pieces are virtually unknown today, especially the twelve vigorous string symphonies and the oratorios for England. His is a truly dualistic output, either fabulously famous or unjustly obscure. He is beloved by all concert-goers (even Adolf Hitler was a big fan before this became politically incorrect), but much of his music remains only to collect dust on academic shelves. Last evening Kurt Masur, a man uniquely qualified as both a former Leipzig student and Gewandhaus conductor, presented both ends of the familiarity spectrum as the middle event of his Mendelssohn Festival.

That trip to Italy didn’t just yield the Symphony #4 but also three motets written for female choir. Last evening the American boys sang two of these ethereal passages as well as two excerpts from Elijah. The music soared under the watchful ear of James Litton and both inspired and uplifted. It is perhaps not totally cricket to criticize children, but this was not some local school or church ensemble, rather a professional performing entity. As such, it is legitimate to comment on the literal strains of the music, the sound less angelic than asthmatic.

In the featured work the orchestra was wonderful. From the opening of the overture, Masur created a lightly mysterious universe, filled not only with delight but also references to the oafish fools that these mortals be. Never have I heard the strings sound as delicate as this nor the woodwinds so precise. The marvelous horn section (perhaps the best in this assemblage) was thrillingly beautiful in the Nocturne, the tuba and bassoon deftly comic replacing the original ophicleide. Tonight Masur sprinkled fairy dust with his magic wand and ladled out generous helpings of comic dumplings in his orchestral soup. This was one of the very best performances that I have heard the Philharmonic engage in for a long, long time.

Unfortunately the rather small crowd shrank considerably as the music wore on. There seemed to be deserters every few minutes, sometimes people leaving in droves. What caused this exodus, I think, was the amateurishly dull reading of John De Lancie, who ran together his phrases and made little attempt to resurrect the poetry of these marvelous passages. Several seasons ago I heard Christopher Plummer in the same role and I can testify willingly that no one walked out on him! In addition to the soloists being inaudible, the performance was severely marred by this cloying speaker. For this eve the Philharmonic, at least in its choice of an actor, hit Bottom.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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