Wednesday, March 2 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev, conductor
Stefan Jackiw, violin
Borodin, In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880)
Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1935)
I have a confession to make.
Today, for the first time, I left a concert early.
To be clear, this was planned. There’s too much on my plate this week, and I had been feeling particularly mentally and physically worn out today. It was either leaving during the intermission or not going at all, as I simply couldn’t fathom staying for Stravinsky’s Firebird in the second half, which I’d be wary of even on a good day. Plus, I only paid $10 for the ticket.
Still, I feel terribly guilty. It’s a vulgar thing to do, like leaving a baseball game early.
In any case, not to defend myself, but the Russian National Orchestra didn’t make much of a case for me to stay. The program that it brought to Carnegie Hall is intriguing, even without the Stravinsky. When I think of Russia’s classical music tradition, the first notes that come to mind are the lush, over the top Romantic melodies of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Instead tonight’s program featured pieces plucked from the more introspective side of the Russian canon, which, at least on YouTube, was refreshing. The Borodin piece, for instance, is hauntingly melancholic, not bad for a chemist who only moonlighted as composer. The orchestra, while seemingly perfectly adequate in its constituent parts, played listlessly. The piece, to me, invokes images of the barren vastness of Central Asia. Not in the romantic sense, no, but imposing and formidable nevertheless. The orchestra gave possibly the most underwhelming performance imaginable of this gorgeous melody. Notes that I imagine were scored as legato were inexplicably played staccato, like a synthesized version of human speech. I even wondered if it’s my Americanized aesthetics that’s in the wrong, that I have come to expect overly indulgent interpretations. It’s plausible, I suppose, but I’ve been to Central Asia, and what I heard tonight wasn’t any interpretation of Central Asia.
If I had to guess, I’d venture that the nearly sold out audience was primarily there for the soloist, Stefan Jackiw. As fervent readers of this blog (i.e. myself) must have noticed, most of the concerts I go to feature piano concertos. By contrast, violinists are not a species that I’m very familiar with. Gauging by the audience response, he was good. Just kidding, though he was indeed very solid and the audience was very enthusiastic. Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto is, if not anachronistic, is at least an anomaly for the composer’s otherwise balletic style. In fact it is almost what a Classical piano concerto re-imagined for the nihilist 20th century violin would sound like, if that makes sense. There is a quiet soloist opening like Beethoven’s 4th, a gentle but dark middle movement like Mozart’s 23rd, and a rondo finale like your standard Classical fare but that’s just a tad unsettling for reasons unclear after the initial listening. In the program notes, the soloist himself noted that the “duality of delicate, sometimes seductive, tenderness and dark, theatrical, menace is everywhere in this violin concerto”. I’m not quite sure that I agree, or even that his performance fully explored his own interpretation. (Granted, he’s the one performing this piece in Carnegie Hall and I, well, am not.) But there is something to be said about the pureness of the sound that he’s able to make with his instrument. Normally I would rate the soloist in terms of overwhelming or being overwhelmed by the orchestra, but in this case that wasn’t even a factor, nor was his interpretative choices or even the lack thereof. I was transfixed by the sultry tones of his violin. It was a much-needed reprise from what had occupied me for the whole day, that is, list comprehensions and the prospect of President Trump.