Bloch, Bruch, Mahler

Back to the Tschaikowsky Hall for a concert of the “New Russia” Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the somewhat eccentric Estonian violinist Andres Mustonen, who may have just walked in from an artist colony or homeless shelter somewhere.  He appeared wearing oversized black rags which looked like he had found them balled up at the bottom of a larger housemate’s laundry basket.  To add a splash of color, or maybe to cover a large stain, he seemed to have ripped the corner off a crimson-and-black patterned tasseled curtain and tied it around his neck like a scarf.  What is left of his long mop of hair he attached to his head using an oversized hair clip strategically placed over his large bald spot.

As he conducted, Mustonen leapt all over the podium, and sometimes off of it, reaching over the music stands of the first row strings to pound out a point.  If he could have safely jumped into the back row of the orchestra, he might have done the same for them.  As an interpretive style, he muscled his way through the music in the program.  He did, however, have an obviously warm relationship with this group, all hugs and smiles, and certainly brought the musicianship out of them.

The concert advertisements, and even the printed program, indicated the concert would begin with Wagner’s Faust Overture.  Obviously, someone lost that wager, since they never performed the work at all.  Instead, we skipped ahead to Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo.  This is an eccentric work I have heard of but not previously heard, and I am not sure that giving an eccentric work an eccentric reading helps in making it understandable.  The sober cello soloist, Nataliya Gutman, was herself a bit overwhelmed by Mustonen’s approach.  I may have to go hear this piece again some time.

Next came Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto.  Soloist Viktor Tretyakov’s reading worked better with Mustonen’s interpretation (although Tretyakov, in his crisp white tie and tails, made quite a visual contrast with Mustonen).  Unfortunately, this meant that the softer passages lacked nuance.  Sounded good from a pure musical perspective, but all together too heavy.

However, Mustonen’s approach worked best for the final work: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, producing a performance of overwhelmingly neurotic proportions.  Not only did the louder and faster passages rage, but even the softer and slower passages were frenetic, in the way that a sedated psychiatric patient’s mind races inside a mellow and restrained body, plotting out what he will do when the medication wears off and he will be set free from the rubber room at the asylum.  The orchestra was up to the challenge.  Some of the audience was not, and gradually started walking out throughout the entire symphony.  Those of us who stayed to the end gave a thundering applause, and I certainly hoped Mustonen and the orchestra would treat us to an encore of another entire Mahler symphony of their choice.  No such luck.

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