Reaction: Beethoven and Mahler, New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, February 16 2017
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1797)
Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (1888)

This blog, being 1.5 years and some 40 blog posts old now, is at a cross road.  On the one hand, writing semi-critically about concerts has profoundly deepened my understanding and appreciation of music and (most) musicians.  On the other hand, however, free time is becoming more and more of a luxury, and I’m not sure the best way to spend it is rehashing how much I cringe at New York Philharmonic’s brass.  In the longer term I may have to be selective in which concerts to blog about or quit altogether, but for now I’m going to post brief “reactions” in lieu of longer and (what are intended to be) more cerebral “reviews” for concerts that stir up nothing new in me.  I imagine this will cover all the New York Philharmonic concerts in the foreseeable future.

Now, as for the music itself…I’m obviously no musicologist, in fact I didn’t even bother reading the program notes, but on some level I perceive Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony to be very similar in the context of their respective composer’s opus.  Both are early works with glimpses of the cosmic themes that would dominate the composers’ later periods, yet both feature childlike elements of joy and wonder.  I thought the Beethoven went really well.  (Well, the piano was a little too quiet to start, but I say the same about every piano concerto performed with this orchestra.)  In fact, I was surprised to read in my own blog that I’ve already heard Mr. Barnatan perform Mozart’s 23rd–he made no impression at all with a forgettable performance of an impossibly unforgettable piece of music.  On this evening he played Beethoven as few do anymore, balancing emotion and restraint, wonder and maturity.  The orchestra took a more transparent approach and didn’t hold anything back.  I’m used to the second movement being played with more tenderness, but in this performance Mr. Honeck turned the orchestra’s usual weakness in its lack of nuance into a strength, underscoring the element of innocence in the concerto.

The Mahler went pretty well too, modulo my usual complaints about the brass, which especially affected the first movement.  The third movement was absolutely sublime, with the smoothest, most haunting double bass solo playing a familiar but contorted nursery rhyme, answered in turn by the oboe.  In all the recordings I’ve ever heard of this symphony, the oboe happily blasts dance tunes over the funeral march.  Principal oboist Liang Wang, a prince among men, expressed so many emotions in so few measures, imbuing the typically playful grace notes with heartbreaking sensitivity.  Twenty minutes later, the finale was explosive beyond words; I don’t know if Mahler’s First *should* sound quite so earth-shattering, but overall the performance worked.

Review: Rach 1 and Mahler’s 10th, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Lang Lang

Wednesday, May 11 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891)
Mahler, Symphony No. 10 (1910, Deryck Cooke 1976 ed.)

For as much as certain NYT critics love to dismiss the Philadelphia Orchestra for conservative programming, it is worth remembering that not all pieces by well-known composers are necessarily accessible.  Case in point: tonight’s concert, the season’s final appearance of my most beloved ensemble at Carnegie Hall, featuring two of the most recognizable composers at their least recognizable junctures.

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto when he was just 17 years old, and it is said that he had modeled the piece after Grieg’s invigorating piano concerto.  Then he would revise it after finishing his much better known second and third concertos.  You can indeed hear the progression of his style in the music: the first movement, a youthful call to arms of sorts, is reminiscent of the first movement of Grieg’s concerto, the second movement, a quieter introspection, is similar thematically to the second movement of Rach 2, and the percussive finale derives most of its emotions from rhythm instead of melody, much like the finale of Rach 3.  Maybe because the composer was so young when he first worked on the piece, or maybe it’s because he had gone back to revise it decades later, while the First exhibits nearly all elements of Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous lyricism, it lacks the  narrative and cohesiveness of his better known works.  Theoretically, this presents an interesting interpretive opportunity for the soloist.  Though nominally rarely performed, I last attended a performance of Rach 1 in early 2015 with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist and remarked at the time that the 23 year old pianist had impressed with precocious control and youthful abandonment in equal measures.

Lang Lang, on the other hand, is virtuosic and frustrating in equal measures.  Truth be told, if it hadn’t been the Philadelphia Orchestra, I probably wouldn’t have attended the concert because Lang Lang is not good enough of a pianist for me to withstand his stage antics.  On this night, his calisthenics weren’t as exaggerated as the last time I saw him (quite a few years ago, playing Liszt), save for an inexplicable airplane arms pose at the end of cadenzas, though from where I was sitting I was treated to a prime display of his facial contortions.  Look, it’s hard to separate Lang Lang the pianist from Lang Lang the brand, but if we were to be fair, we should acknowledge that Rach 1 is a good choice for him.  As the piece itself has some structural issues, the artist’s gaudy showmanship highlighted the piece’s technical prowess without reminding the audience of its lack of finer nuances and inner consistency, and really that’s a favor the piece returns for the artist in question as well.  I would have preferred the first and last movements to be played more crisply, but certainly things could have been worse–this could have been Lang Lang playing Rach 3, or he could have had to take the stage without the support of Rachamninoff’s favorite orchestra, which, by the way, was game as ever.

Shortly after Yannick returned to the stand for the second half of the program, there were two curious observations of note.  One, many in the audience had left–because they were only there for the pianist, or because they were purists who couldn’t imagine sitting through a re-imagined Mahler?  And two, Yannick appeared much more demure than usual.  As a seating shuffle (despite all the empty seats!) delayed the start of the symphony, instead of sitting down on the conductor’s podium and watching in pretend amusement as he has done multiple times in the past, Yannick remained solemn if a little impatient.  He was about to conduct Mahler’s Tenth after all, drafted as the composer became aware of his wife’s cheating while his own health was failing.  Mahler died before completing the work and only orchestrated the first movement, and the version performed by the orchestra tonight was completed by musicologist Deryck Cooke in the 1970s.  Finishing the work of a titan always presents an uncomfortable conundrum: if the end result is plausible, it will probably be criticized for being artificially so.  Cooke’s version of Mahler’s Tenth certainly sounds Mahlerian, with its overarching struggle interspersed with almost childlike scherzos.  It reminds me of Mahler’s First in structure and seamless integration of life and death motifs.  But whereas Mahler’s First is full of delights and ultimately hopeful, his last symphony is downright chilling, as if the mental state of someone slipping in and out of lucidity.  Indisputably the composer’s most dissonant symphony, some believe that Mahler would have gone over completely to the dark, I mean, atonal side had he lived.  Personally I think the causality is the other way around: Mahler knew his life was nearing its end and thus saved the most dissonant for last.  Whichever way you slice it, this is a difficult piece, and being so early in the week, the orchestra was a bit off–understandably, if still somewhat uncharacteristically.  The strings were first rate as always, but the winds were a little messy.  It didn’t seem to matter, at least not to Yannick, who seemed completely spent but content at the finish.  I’ve seen the man play an hour of chamber music after conducting a full concert, I’ve seen him ripping his tux after an extremely physical 2.5 hours on the podium, and I’ve seen him conduct Mahler’s Second.  But this is the first time that I’ve seen him leave everything on the stage with nothing left.  I’ve said this before and I will say it again: critics be damned, I love this man and this band.  May we all grow together for many more years to come.
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Review: Mahler’s Fifth, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, April 16 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, conductor

Kevin Puts, The City (2016, with film by James Bartolomeo)
Mahler, Symphony No. 5 (1902)

Tonight I was upgraded to the expensive seats at Carnegie Hall for the first time, which was likely due a serendipitous mistake.  As I left for the concert, I had forgotten to bring my wallet.  By the time I realized this and retrieved my wallet, I was 20 minutes behind schedule and barely made it to the venue on time.  Since the concert was about to start, it seemed that the kind gentleman at the box office decided that he might as well sell me a prime orchestra-level seat for the rush ticket price.  Had I arrived 20 minutes earlier, I probably would have been sold a restricted view third tier seat, which is what normally happens.  Of course, it helped that the concert was nowhere near sold out, so don’t try this at home, or at the next Berlin Philharmonic appearance in New York.

Speaking of which, it is a shame that this excellent program by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did not sell out, as it featured quite possibly the best programming any American orchestra brought to Carnegie Hall all season.  The opening piece was a Carnegie Hall co-commission, which I was completely ready to dismiss as a publicity stunt to please the anti-canon New York Times critics, but it turned out to be a worthy composition poignant in its subject and impeccable in its execution.  Being a multimedia collaboration, a film montage of mostly stock footage was shown as well, which probably helped in audience engagement (a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in my day job).  Ostensibly the project explores the way cities, particularly Baltimore, have evolved over the past century, but as Ms. Alsop explained, when the project started three years ago, the artists involved could not have predicted the strife and turmoil that Baltimore would see, and they ended up traversing unexpected directions.  The result was quite striking, at least visually.  The first half of the film presented iconic sights of Baltimore, past and present.  It seemed to me that the theme is growing pains–footage of demolitions contrasted with fireworks, for instance–in the greater context of the city’s cultural history.  There were even several thematic shots of the Baltimore Orioles, particularly Cal Ripken Jr.  (The three subjects that I’m most familiar with are math, classical music, and baseball.  Math overlaps quite a bit with both classical music and baseball, but the intersection of the latter two had been empty, until tonight.)  Then the subject of the film changed abruptly to the 2015 Baltimore riots, after which the screen went black for several minutes while the orchestra played a stormy developmental section.  When the film resumed, the theme was recovery through music and featured this very orchestra in a self-referential way.  It was not subtle, as if any ability to be such was compromised due to the sudden narrative shift forced by recent events, but both the film and the music–at times unsettling and elegiac, at times exultant and hopeful–were effective and constitute a premier example of how multimedia art can be done in the 21st century.

It’s not often that Mahler, particularly Mahler’s Fifth, would be the less memorable part of a program, and if this was the case on this evening, it was not due to any shortcomings on the part of the orchestra or its conductor (the trumpet’s shaky opening notwithstanding).  Actually, I would not have guessed it prior to the concert, but programmatically Mahler’s Fifth pairs very well with The City, as both are intimate yet larger than life journeys from darkness to light.  Moreover, the dates of the two pieces essentially bookend the period covered in the film montage.  In any case, every time I listen to Mahler’s Fifth, I always find myself thinking within the first ten minutes that this is the greatest symphony ever composed.  And maybe it is.  If nothing else, it is the culmination of a century and a half of Austro-German canon: you can hear Beethoven, you can hear Brahms, you can hear Schumann, and if you listened to Bruckner, I’m sure you can hear him too.  But then I always zone out around the third movement when Mahler switches from the funeral dirge to the more upbeat scherzo.  The first movement is cosmic, almost Wagnerian, and the second movement is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Seventh in theme if not execution, as affirmation ultimately could not escape the despair spilled over from the opening.  But the scherzo is a somewhat clunky transition.  There is a waltz, but also a child’s song in there somewhere, I think, which a lesser mind such as mine cannot reconcile with the surrounding movements.  On the other hand, the famed strings-only adagietto was perfection, both as it was composed and as it was performed.  The program notes claim that it was a love letter to the composer’s wife Alma and that it exudes sensuous joy.  I’m not sure I get that, at least not the joy part.  To me, the adagietto invokes an exquisite sense of loss, not quite as achingly tender as the adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, but a study in longing nevertheless.  Themes from the adagietto would eventually return in the finale, by now sped up and bathed in the life-affirming D major key (five movements ago, the symphony had opened in C-sharp minor) as the journey from tragedy to triumph completes.  The final notes of this sweeping triumph threaten to get out of control under lesser batons, but Ms. Alsop was more than competent in guiding the orchestra and the music through the demolitions and fireworks of the finale and achieving a moment of true apotheosis.  A satisfying evening all around.
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