Young Concert Artists, Merkin Concert Hall (New York)

Boyle, Hertzberg, Bunch, Rogerson

Twenty years ago, Young Concert Artists, a premiere outfit which for over fifty years has launched the careers of many top-notch classical musicians (from Emanuel Ax through Pinchas Zukerman), started promoting composers as well.  On this night, it presented a concert consisting entirely of music by four composers from its roster, performed mostly by its musician alumni.  The results were decidedly mixed.

Benjamin Boyle’Sonata-Cantilena opened the program, an OK but none-too-exciting work performed by the inexpressive flautist Mimi Stillman accompanied by a surprisingly fat-fingered and inaccurate Charles Abramovic (not a YCA alumnus).  Would better musicians have made this work more compelling?  I’m not sure.

David Hertzberg’Orgie Céleste, having its world premiere, shook the audience back awake – indeed, the clarinet line could have doubled as an alarm clock.  Some very fine musicians (Narek Arutyunian on the clarinet, Paul Huang on the violin, and Ursula Oppens on the piano – all of them YCA performers) tried their best, though.

Three works by Kenji Bunch after the intermission marked the concert’s highlight, demonstrating three contrasting styles.  First came a melancholic duet, I Dream in Evergreen, with Bunch himself on the viola accompanied by his wife, Monica Ohuchi, on piano.  This work had no fixed tempi or harmonies, the two instruments improvising and finding each other freely – which could have produced chaos but instead, at least with this tandem, resulted in creative collaboration and concord. Etude #4 for solo piano allowed Ohuchi to attack the keyboard breathlessly but well within control.  And the final Bunch work, Étouffée for solo viola, showcased Bunch’s total talents, its Cajun-inspired rhythms animating the audience.

The Opus One (a piano quartet, two of whose members are YCA alums) concluded the concert with Chris Rogerson’Summer Night Music for Piano Quartet, another balanced piece, whose four movements displayed a composer eager to demonstrate experimental, but thankfully tonal, textures.

I did not sit down to write this review that evening, as I normally would – indeed, I waited a couple of weeks for the concert to digest.  It went down without indigestion, I am pleased to report, but may not have been the most memorable meal.  In all, was this concert a good evening’s entertainment?  Yes.  Did I learn anything from the selection of new music?  Not really.  I’d want to hear the Bunch works again to see if they would hold up.  Or something else by Bunch.  He had the most to say, even if using the fewest ingredients.

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Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Rachmaninov, Enescu

Vladimir Jurowski has not only restored the level of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but he has also given it a reputation as willing to perform rarer works.  Tonight, the highly unusual Symphony #3 by George Enescu.

The Romanian prodigy Enescu studied first at the Vienna Conservatory and then at the Paris Conservatory.  This may have influenced this symphony, which was Austrian in concept but French in the details.  He employed a massive orchestra and chorus (wordless) to paint an enormous canvas, and then stuck to only pastel colors.  Jurowksi is clearly enamored of this work, and he made a point of holding the score over his head during the rounds of applause at the end, to have the audience give it special recognition.

I think the orchestra liked the spectacle of it.  And it certainly gave most instruments a chance to stand out and add their own colors – I suppose if anyone is to perform this symphony, it might as well be the London Philharmonic under Jurowski.  But was it a good work?  I’m not sure.  Some rarely-performed pieces are secret gems… others are rarely-performed for a reason.  It wasn’t bad.  I might hear it again sometime to give it another try.  But even this excellent performance by sympathetic forces did not make it stand out.

The first half of the concert included Three Russian Songs and the Spring Cantata, all by Rachmaninov (the London Philharmonic is featuring his work this season).  These works are performed in Russia, but not so much outside.  The London Philharmonic Choir and Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko built on the moving reading by Jurowski and the orchestra, although the chorus did sound a bit uncomfortable singing Russian.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Mozart, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, as its name implies the house orchestra of a concert hall in Berlin (and apparently an offshoot of the once reasonably-good Berliner Symphoniker), has come to Salzburg for three nights, with a bunch of works that do not logically fit together in any particular way (nor do the program notes provide an explanation for the selection).  Tonight’s concert: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 (with a movement from a Mozart sonata for solo piano as an encore) and Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #5 (with “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations as an encore).  (Tomorrow night’s concert has the same program, which I won’t repeat; Friday’s concert has mismatched Prokofiev and Haydn – since I fly on the weekend, I may need to work late on Friday so I’ll likely skip that one.)

Berliner Martin Helmchen played the piano solos, and another Berliner, Michael Sanderling, conducted.  Sanderling is the third of three sons of the late conductor Kurt Sanderling – and all three sons themselves became conductors.  I heard his father conduct in Zurich in 2002 on his farewell tour (he retired that year at 90 years old).  The youngest Sanderling (who is actually turning 48 later this month) may have inherited his father’s understanding of music, but may not have inherited his father’s ability to communicate that understanding.  Or maybe not with this orchestra.  The Berlin Konzerthausorchestra was technically sound, responded to Sanderling’s shaping, but something was missing: feeling.  Although the interpretation was clear, the outcome was rigid.

The Beethoven concerto, written at the end of the 18th century, remains in that century even as it shows signs of Beethoven’s growing genius.  Tonight’s performance took it carefully with a light touch.  The Mozart encore perhaps allowed the Beethoven to shine more.  Although it may be sacrilegious to say this in Salzburg, Beethoven eclipses Mozart.  If Mozart had never existed, the world would be deprived of a lot of beautiful music by Mozart, but that’s all.  If Beethoven had never existed, music would not have evolved the same way, and we would not only be deprived of music by Beethoven, but by much of what came after.  Helmchen’s beautifully-played Mozart encore proved the point.

As for the Schostakowitsch symphony, Sanderling clearly understood the work, and the orchestra dutifully followed his interpretation.  But understanding it and being fluent in it are not quite the same.  Schostakowitsch’s Fifth is often misinterpreted as a triumphal Soviet work; in reality, it is about as triumphal as an a defeated man being ordered to celebrate while having a gun pointed at his head.  Sanderling took the tempi slowly, which drew out the irony and the pain underlying the music.  The percussion pierced.  The orchestra did as instructed, but in this case the middle bits dragged, and thus lost the complex emotions.  Maybe Berliners are not capable of emotion.

After such a work, the encore had to be lighter but not too happy.  Elgar’s “Nimrod” served the purpose well, even if it is an over-used encore these days.  The orchestra played sentimentally, but maybe not enough so.