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Long Live the King

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/09/2001 -  
Claude Debussy: Images
Manuel de Falla:Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Maurice Ravel: La Valse

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)

Through a bizarre set of circumstances, the annual press luncheon at Carnegie Hall coincided nicely with the evening’s musical bill of fare Tuesday because of their shared central theme, the inevitability of transition. Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, just recently hailed as Carnegie’s savior, hosted the afternoon affair and helped to usher in a new season which will now emerge from the cloud of his sudden resignation. The year will feature music from the countries of the ancient Silk Road (a personal treat for me as I have worked in the timeless old city of Urumqi in Xinjiang Provice, China) and the invitation had promised food from the region to sustain a hungry press corps. My expectation after following the recent Carnegie saga so closely was that the main course would be pressed lame duck. The concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra that subsequently occupied the hall occurred on the very day that they announced the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach as their new music director and was conducted by, until today, one of the leading candidates to take over for the departing Wolfgang Sawallisch, thus providing an opportunity to close the circle of time and speculate on both failed and hopeful promise.

David Robertson will soon earn some city an innovative reputation as a selector of conductors. Even though it did not turn out to be Philadelphia, this fine ensemble has been allowing him to showcase his talent for twentieth century music by presenting repertoire that is slightly off the beaten orbit without veering off on a tangential vector of incomprehensibility that would leave most audiences cold. Last year he treated his New York listeners to a superb reading of Kurt Weill which dared to emphasize the jazzy nature of this rebellious music. This season he is teaming with another young lion of the contemporary scene, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as they follow their own tributary of the Seine to ferret out some of the rarer gems of the recent past. The musical kinship of these two men is strong; Robertson is the protégé of Pierre Boulez and a resident conductor at his mentor’s IRCAM studio in Paris, while Aimard spent his formative years living in the house of Olivier Messiaen, himself the guiding inspiration of Boulez and the father of the “non-development” style of Western music. Rather than presenting Nono or Stockhausen, however, the two young friends have instead opted for Manuel de Falla, a figure not much more familiar to most listeners but considerably more artistically “acceptable”.

What exactly is Nights in the Gardens of Spain? It is certainly not a piano concerto, although its positioning in the middle of last evening’s program, the placing of the piano at center stage and the signing of a rising superstar as soloist would indicate the contrary. It is really more of an aborted concerto, more on the lines of Stravinsky’s Petrouschka. Mr. Aimard must be secure in his own abilities and rosy prospects to sacrifice his considerable virtuosity to the relatively mild dexterities of the de Falla. It is an irony of history that the Spanish music that we all enjoy is filtered so densely through a European cheesecloth. Ultimately, this piece is no more Iberian than Verdi’s Moorish Love Song or Debussy’s wonderfully performed Images which opened the program. An occasional diminished fourth and a random castanet hardly evoke the true nature of the peninsula, but at least the flawlessly crisp reading of the orchestra allowed us all to suspend our disbelief and fantasize a trip to those sunny shores. Robertson has a very good feel for this music, punctuating it with just the right touch of rhythmic spice and rotation of the hip.

Sonically, the Ravel was ravishing, the Philadelphia strings playing the waltz theme lovingly and held in check dynamically by this savvy conductor only to explode in an orgiastic forte of sensual delight. The intensifying of the rhythm was handled expertly and the apocalyptic ending, often degenerating into pudding in less talented hands, was clean and well defined right up to and including the last note under the watchful discipline of this talented podium aspirant. What was missing, however, was that sense of depravity and frenzy that is, after all, at the core of the composer’s message. This performance was less Franz Kafka and more Gower Champion.

Herr Eschenbach will be inheriting the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere. I’m sure that some board members are already contemplating his eventual successor. Hopefully, they will both come prepared by learning the lesson of Eugene Ormandy:

if it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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