Review: Chopin’s First on Inauguration Eve, Philadelphia Orchestra

Thursday, January 19 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Louis Lortie, piano

Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1947 version)

It’s been nearly five months since my last blog on the subject of music, five months since the last time I attended a concert in New York City.  I did catch a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto while on vacation in Bergen (Norway) in early September, as well as a spectacle of Beethoven’s Ninth while traveling in Kyoto (Japan) over the holidays.  I didn’t blog about them here, partially because the fjords and the temples felt more exciting than Elgar and Beethoven, and partially because even on vacation I was preoccupied, first with baseball as summer turned to fall and then with the election’s aftermath as fall turned to winter–the same preoccupations, really, that kept me from Carnegie Hall all season long.  I wasn’t going to blog about the concert in Philly either–I was in town for a dentist appointment and decided to stay for some Chopin–but the experience just needed to be shared here and now.

Mostly, I have to share what happened before the regularly scheduled programming.  As the musicians took their seats, we realized there was no piano on stage.  (That, and it was a full orchestra with a tuba.)  But the Chopin concerto!  Was the pianist sick?  Don’t tell me I stayed in town for nothing.  Then Yannick walked onto the stage and assured the audience that the piano concerto was still on, but first the orchestra had prepared a surprise.  They were going to perform a piece of music composed during WWI by the female composer Lili Boulanger and finished by her sister Nadia Boulanger, who picked up the piece after Lili’s untimely death at age 25.  Nadia was herself one of the first prominent female conductors in the world.  The composition is called D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning). I’ve been to hundreds of classical concerts and had never seen musicians perform an unprogrammed piece except as an encore; it was perplexing, especially since Yannick made a sly but clear reference to the orchestra practicing it in the morning, so it’s not a spur of the moment addition.  It was only later that I understood this was a subtle (or not so subtle) sign of support for the Women’s March, which is a really lovely showing of solidarity.  I must listen to the music again–with stylistic connections to Debussy and Stravinsky, two composers I’m not particularly fond it, I zoned out at the time, but expect deeper a connection now that I have context.

The ensuing Chopin was also an experience that I will remember for a long time, not because the performance was great–in fact it wasn’t even good: the orchestra sounded hollow at times, messy at others, and under-rehearsed throughout; the pianist was mechanical and without nuance, covering up what I suspect to be lack of finer control with speed; all in all probably the worst I’ve ever heard from this orchestra and far below the standards of the last time that I’d heard the piece in person.  But on this evening none of that mattered.  The First Piano Concerto, like much of Chopin’s music, is melancholic but leaves one feeling invigorated instead of in despair.  Indeed, from its vulnerability comes strength, and from its wistfulness comes hope.  So apropos of the eve of the inauguration that the music, transcending the performance thereof, left me breathless and nearly in tears.

Emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the intermission, I was mentally checked out by the Petrushka, which I can’t bring myself to love even in the best of circumstances anyway.  I do think I like the original 1911 version better than the 1947 revised version performed here.  To be honest I really have no idea what the music is about, but the winds and the percussions seemed to have fun (perhaps deranged fun).  And why not, the orchestra’s woodwinds is as about as good as it gets.  Though I had pondered ditching the second half of the program, even in my listless state I don’t regret a single minute spent in this familiar concert hall.  It will always feel like home, so not getting back to my actual home until 2am is a small price to pay.

Review: The Mozart Requiem, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra

Saturday, August 20 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Louis Langrée, conductor
Concert Chorale of New York
James Bagwell, director

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Cecelia Hall, mezzo-soprano
Alek Shrader, tenor 
Christian Van Horn, bass-baritone

Mozart, Mass in C minor (1782)
Mazart, Requiem (1791)

Oh hi!  It’s been a while.  You know, I had plans this summer.  I was going to catch the NY Philharmonic in the park.  I was going to attend multiple Mostly Mozart concerts.  I was even going to sit through a chamber recital or two.  Well, here we are, nearing summer’s end and I have done none of those things.  What happened, you ask?  For one, for the first time since what seems like a lifetime ago, my beloved Cleveland Indians are having a good summer, and following them has been a time-consuming endeavor (which may or may be detrimental to my mental health as the summer turns to fall).  Secondly, I’ve been traveling every other weekend to catch up with friends from different periods of life, which has been great, but it has also made me crave downtime even more than usual.  Then there was this nagging upper respiratory track infection that I picked up along the way, and I’m not fond of going outside in the summer heat in general, plus there’s the Olympics, so yeah… it’s been so long since I’d gone to a concert that I almost got lost coming out of the subway at Lincoln Center.

Anyhow, the grand finale of Mostly Mozart featuring the stunning Requiem was an event that I would only consider missing over my own dead body.  (No, umm, pun intended?)   I know it inside and out.  Sure, there are many piano concertos that I’ve listened to more often, but the Mozart Requiem is the most complex piece of classical music that I have actually performed.  Back in 2009 I had sung it with the Penn choir (alto, in case you were wondering), and it was a wondrous experience.  I was befuddled by it nearly all semester, but in the final rehearsals it suddenly clicked and sounded like pure genius.  For a piece practically composed for the composer’s own funeral, it is morbidly scintillating.  That’s getting ahead of ourselves though, as I had to sit through the C Minor Mass first.  Missae solemnis, surprise surprise, aren’t my thing.  This one in particular is quite baroque and strangely joyous, but the performance, particularly the choir, sounded a little messy throughout.  David Geffen Hall acoustics are probably never going to be great anyway, though any evening without you wanting to cover your ears at the onslaught of brass winds is a good evening.

I’ve long maintained that if Mozart wrote nothing other than his 23rd Piano Concerto and Requiem, he would still be one of the greatest composers of all time.  Actually, Mozart only lived to see to completion about half of the Requiem.  His student Süssmayr is credited with “orchestrating the Dies irae and Offertorium, completing the Lacrimosa, and composing the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei outright”, according to the program notes.  As many times as I’ve listened to–and sung–the Requiem, the piece has always seemed like a seamless, cohesive whole without any perceptible stylistic shifts from one movement to another.  Whether it was intentional or not, however, Mr. Langrée seemed to conduct two different requiems, one culminating in the first eight gloriously lilting bars of Lacrimosa–the final notes of music of Mozart’s life–and the other thereafter.  It was a bit uneven to say the least.  The orchestra and the singers were slightly out of sync in the beginning, and though Mr. Langrée brought them to the same page toward the end, he conducted the Sanctus and Benedictus in an almost techno fashion.  Honestly, the Penn choir and orchestra’s performance was better, though to be fair we had more than three months to rehearse.  That Mostly Mozart is able to put on such strong programs year after year with only weeks’ preparation is something to be treasured, for sure.

Review: Beethoven’s Triple, Minnesota Orchestra

Saturday, July 16 2016
Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, MN

Minnesota Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor and piano
Nicola Benedetti, violin
Leonard Elschenbroich, cello

Beethoven, Overture to Fidelio (1814)
Beethoven, Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra “Triple Concerto” (1803)
Brahms, Symphony No. 4 (1885)

Wrapping up a highly satisfying weekend in Minneapolis, I caught a Sommerfest concert highlighted by Beethoven’s rarely heard Triple Concerto.  Rarely heard, I suppose because the number of soloists involved makes it difficult to pull together a polished performance with limited practice time, which is what these summer concert series are for–audience seems to not demand as much perfection when the weather is nice.  Rising stars Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich joined conductor Andrew Litton, who double dutied at the piano, for an admirable attempt at the Triple Concerto.  Prior to Ms. Benedetti and Mr. Elschenbroich taking the stage, Mr. Litton felt compelled to inform us that the two of them are an item, which seemed like unnecessary information at the time but in retrospect may have been to adjust the audience’s Bayesian prior toward the belief that the two of them play as one.  Spoiler alert, they did not.

The whole thing was a mess, really.  By now I expect to cringe at any American orchestra’s wind sections, but Minnesota Orchestra’s (what I presume to be second tier) winds were a notch below that already low bar.  Between that and the poor acoustics of the concert hall, a muffled echo trapped the sounds of the soloists throughout the first movement.  Seemingly desperate to break free, Ms. Benedetti played with much less restraint after the opening movement, and poor Mr. Elschenbroich couldn’t keep up, which led to a labored negotiation between their instruments on tempo that was never quite settled.  (Mr. Litton had his hands full with the piano and was of little help at arbitrating.)  Nevertheless, the audience seemed to appreciate the effort and leapt to its feet with a prolonged standing ovation.

The Brahms symphony in the second half of the concert went much better.  Brahms symphonies are usually good for hiding lack of finesse, and besides I’m certain the orchestra has played Brahms’s 4th countless times in the recent past that little rehearsal time was needed.  Even so, many of the wind solos barely eked out the right notes and made no pretense at any kind of interpretation.  Against this underwhelming backdrop, I led my mind wander and became distracted by the awful florescent blue lighting and the weird 3-dimensional geometric cutouts protruding from the concert hall’s walls; it’s as if someone accepted the challenge to construct a more trippy version of David Geffen Hall.  At the end, however, Brahms rarely disappoints and the sweeping majesty of the music carried the orchestra to a serviceable, if not rousing, finish.

As for the opening overture, there isn’t much to say except that Beethoven and opera are an odd match.  Still, Beethoven’s got a high batting average, unlike, say, a certain Cleveland catcher that I saw at Target Field on Friday.  Trust me, that will be the best link you click on all week.

Review: Romeo and Juliet, American Ballet Theater

Thursday, June 23 2016
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

American Ballet Theater
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Alessandra Ferri, Juliet
Herman Cornejo, Romeo
Craig Salstein, Mercutio

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan

During this transformative week in which humanity edged two steps closer to doomsday, namely my hometown of Cleveland winning a sports championship and Britain voting to leave the EU, alas there is still music.  Ballet season, to be exact.  I’m not nominally a fan as I find any art form with a visual element in addition to the auditory to be overwhelming, but it’s been nearly a year and a half since my last token ballet concert, and I’m on Prokofiev streak, and 53 year old Alessandra Ferri is coming out of retirement to make this performance the event of the season (or so I was told), and what else have I gotten to do now that Carnegie Hall’s season is over?  So when inexpensive tickets became available in the morning, I snatched one without giving its affordability a second thought.  Then I proceeded to spend most of the work day at a standing desk–while gleefully extolling the virtue of standing to colleagues–in anticipation of sitting all evening.  See where I’m going with this?  Yep, the ticket turned out to be for standing room only.  And not even the nice kind like my two opera experiences from earlier this year, where I could comfortably hunch over the last row of seats.  Instead I was in the second of three standing rows, each row jam packed with allotted spaces of no more than a foot wide apiece.  If I hunched over the standing, umm, rack(?) I wouldn’t be able to see, and if I tried to fidget to take some weight off my feet I’d bump into the people next to me.

Upon realizing this predicament, I planned on leaving after the first act, especially since the only part of the ballet score that has ever really made an impression on me is the iconic “Dance of the Knights”, which is in the middle of the first act.  In reality “Dance of the Knights” was somewhat disappointing, as though the full stage of dancers constituted a visual spectacle, the choreography itself was understated and ran counter to the strong rhythmic nature of the music (I would have put in a sword fight there).  However, the sight of a 50-something woman doing pirouettes on her toes was truly inspirational, in the sense that I was inspired to deal with standing on two feet for the duration of the ballet.  Speaking of which, Ms. Ferri really was a sight to behold.  Though the choreography was subtly simplified, her carriage and presence were divine.  Those pointed toes!  If only Romeo could have clued in to the fact that the dead don’t point their toes.  Hollywood actresses should take note of her opening scene as Juliette, in which she exuded the kind of lightness and joy that only the young and innocent could.  How a 53 year old woman credibly plays the pre-Romeo Juliet is probably more astonishing to me than the sensuous dancing she later performs with her beau.

The supporting cast was all very solid as well, especially Mercutio, though I was told that Mr. Salstein’s posture is starting to suffer from his age.  Overall, I see now why Romeo and Juliet is a balletic classic but rarely played by standalone orchestras.  Its essence lies in the dance and the acting, with the music–seemingly undanceable in and of itself–serving a role more akin to film (or perhaps theater) score than functional music on its own.  For most in the audience, it was a special evening.  Not being an expert on the subject, some of that was lost on me, but certainly it’s still nice to branch out once in a while.
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Review: The Four Seasons, New York Philharmonic

Friday, June 3 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Frank Huang, leader and violin

Grieg, The Last Spring (1881)
Piazzolla, Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1965-1970, arr. L. Desyatnikov)
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (1723)

Before we get started, I just want to say that I’m beyond pleased with the news that Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the next music director of the Met *as well as* remaining music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for at least another decade.  Not only does he combine first-rate musicianship with magnetic charisma, on a personal note it is of great comfort to me that one of the constants of my life since the early days of grad school will continue to be a nearby presence for the foreseeable future.

Now, this seasonal concert by the New York Philharmonic is the 32nd concert I’ve attended since starting this blog.  32 in less than a year.  That’s a lot, though to be honest, it’s probably less than what I’d managed in previous years.  I think the demands of writing this blog have made me more selective in choosing concerts and leaning toward programs and/or performers that I know beforehand I’d feel strongly enough to write about.  In many ways this is good, as taking the time to reflect and critique has deepened my understanding and interpretation of many masterpieces.  But on the other hand, putting more effort into music and orchestras that I already like means I’m missing out on opportunities to expand my horizon.  I hardly go to chamber performances or recitals anymore, and, for that matter, have significantly reduced my attendance of New York Philharmonic concerts in the past six  months.  It’s a prestigious ensemble and all, but it’s just so…blah, even when it plays crowd favorites with reasonable technical proficiency, as it did tonight with a strings-only (no brass!  thank goodness) concert anchored by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (which the Philharmonic tepidly advertised as an “undisputed classical Top 40”).

Don’t get me wrong, the musicians did a fine job, particularly concertmaster Frank Huang, who double dutied as solo violinist and orchestra leader and thoroughly displayed his mastery of both roles.  The three season-themed pieces of music performed this evening are each distinctively beautiful and together form an ingenious program, but still I left the concert speechless, as in I have nothing substantive to speak of.  It probably doesn’t help that, as a ticket became available only in the last minute, I had never listened to the Grieg piece or the Piazzolla before.  As Milan Kundera said, what can life be worth, if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?  Or something to that extent.  Bottom line is that music, particularly instrumental classical music, is not typically accessible on the first pass.  Nevertheless, first impressions of The Last Spring: elegiac and haunting, fresh yet wistful.  As the title suggests, the piece is based on a text recounting the story of a dying man observing his last spring, and the poignant contrast between the new beginning that the season nominally promises and the imminent end that the dying man faces tugs at the (heart)strings.  I see it as a companion piece to “To the Spring” from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, which has always struck me as a bright, wondrous first spring of sorts.

I’m not typically a fan of Alan Gilbert’s penchant for non-traditional music, though in this case I am glad that he snuck an Argentine take on the four seasons into a program showcasing the more traditional Vivaldi one.  Like with the Grieg, I will have to listen to Four Seasons of Buenos Aires again, but it seems to be a sultry tango that pays homage to Vivaldi by incorporating his chords and formal patterns while remaining thoroughly committed to the piece’s Argentinian soul.  What I particularly like is that the composition never takes itself too seriously, as it’s full of witty touches–particularly at the transition of seasons–that elicited several rounds of laughter from the audience.  Of course, even in winter Buenos Aires is a fun place with pleasant weather, so Mr. Piazzolla was fortunate that he was not composing Four Seasons of Cleveland or something (not least because beyond winter, construction, and sports heartbreaks, Cleveland doesn’t even have a fourth season, but I digress).  Mr. Desyatnikov deserves much praise as well for his arrangement of the piece–originally composed for violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón–for solo violin and string orchestra, as I can’t even imagine that it could have worked in any other form. 

Finally, the main event, Vivalid’s glorious Four Seasons (more of a top 20 than top 40, I’d reckon), was a flop.  Not because of the musicians–as I clarified at the onset, they did well, particularly the solo violinist and the first cellist–but because of the audience, whose applause every few minutes mutilated the piece into disjoint bits.  Yes, I’m aware that technically The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concerti each with three movements of its own, but shouldn’t it be all about different registers of strings, through their contrasting textures, coming together and forming a cohesive portrait of the ebb and flow of, you know, the seasons?  Instead any thematic energy generated from one movement was not sustained into the next, and the performance became a taxing exercise in Baroque virtuosity.  Kind of wish that the Philharmonic’s own season ended on a stronger note, but oh well, here’s to summer.
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Review: Russian Masterpieces, The MET Orchestra feat. Evgeny Kissin

Thursday, May 19 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

The MET Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Evgeny Kissin, piano

Glinka, Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique” (1893)

I am a logical person by most objective measures, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the the sunk cost fallacy.  Consider Thursday.  The evening’s MET Orchestra concert–a crowd-pleasing lineup of Russian masterpieces with the legendary James Levine and megastar Evgeny Kissin–was long sold out but for same-day rush tickets, so I woke up significantly earlier than usual to line up outside Carnegie Hall.  There were about 40 people ahead of me by the time I arrived, at which point someone more levelheaded would probably recognize the hopelessness of the endeavor and head to work instead.  But I inexplicably chose to wait in line for nearly an hour.  Then later in the day I found a scalper selling a ticket for 50% more than its worth, which was already 50% more than what I’m normally willing to pay, even for a concert of this pedigree.  But because it felt like the ticket was not just for the concert but to recoup the time spent in pursuit of a ticket, I caved in.  So there you have it, the story of why I will be eating oatmeal for the rest of the month.

Anyhow, the concert was worth every penny.  I’ve actually never heard Kissin or Levine in person before.  This was to be Kissin’s last North American concert for several years, and with Levine’s deteriorating health–he conducted from a wheelchair and was very clearly restricted by physical ailments–any appearance is a momentous occasion.  Their version of Rach 2 brought nothing revolutionary to the stage, but in a good way, because how many times can you reinvent the wheel anyway?  I’ve written at length about different modes of Rachmaninoff players, and Kissin combines the best traits of them all.  Neither ostentatious nor aloof, his play is highly refined but also warm, sensitive, and personal, textbook without being formulaic, emotional without being indulgent.  The MET Orchestra’s wind sections, seasoned as they are playing the operatic repertoire, provided the perfect foil.  If I have anything to nitpick, it’s that the strings were a bit too heavy for both the concerto and the always-exhilarating Ruslan and Lyudmila overture that opened the evening.  The weight of the strings made Rach 2 more dramatic than my usual liking, but on the other hand, I had long thought Rach 2 to be a lightweight–albeit a gorgeous one–to Rach 3, and Kissin and this excellent orchestra brought out such detail and nuance in a piece whose obvious appeal is in the broad strokes that I may have to re-examine this conviction.  If anyone in the audience were listening to Rach 2 for the first time…well, let’s just say that I envy them.

Speaking of first times, this was the first time that I had seriously listened to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and I was blown away viscerally.  At the same time, I don’t quite know what to make of it cognitively.  The program notes classified this as Tchaikovsky’s darkest piece, and some have even speculated it to be the composer’s suicide note, as Tchaikovsky died suddenly only nine days after its premier.  Personally I found the melodies of the first two movements to be reminiscent of the Nutcracker–which the composer had worked on not long before–if more suggestive and reliant on the lower registers (playing to the strength of the heavy strings).  These two movements even sound balletic, as in I was literally imagining ballet dancers dancing to the music.  I’m not sure if that’s intrinsic to the score or just the way the orchestra presented it, or perhaps it’s even my own projection, considering that this ensemble usually plays a supporting role to productions with essential visual components.  Another observation–again, I may be projecting here–is that the orchestra, technically capable as it is, seemed to not finish off themes and transitioned somewhat awkwardly, which makes sense given that operatic audiences usually start clapping at the final notes of arias.

After two melodically familiar movements, the third movement was such an joyous, bombast affair that I couldn’t glean even an ounce of the symphony’s namesake.  The audience erupted into applause at the end of the triumphant march, even if at least some of them should be aware that the symphony was not over yet.  Perhaps this was Tchaikovsky’s pathology, to set up the audience for the devastating conclusion.  Mr. Levine, too, took an extra long pause before the final movement, ostensibly to adjust to his wheelchair, but I wonder if it weren’t also to create maximal distance between the third and fourth movements.  The final movement was downright chilling, from the dissonant first note to the last words given to the lower strings.  Do themes from the beginning movements return in different forms?  I couldn’t tell.  Under less seasoned batons, I imagine one might blame the composer for writing the movements out of order, but on this evening, even if I couldn’t connect the final movement musically to the rest of the piece, emotionally it made sense.  I don’t want to say that the final movement was an elegy, but it certainly felt like farewell of sorts, portended by the first two movements and whose contrast with the third movement is the emotional anchor of the symphony.  The program of this concert was set at least 18 months in advance, before Mr. Levine’s health forced him to resign from Music Director of the institution, but one wonders if Mr. Levine had suspected what was to come, or if this has been another case of life imitating art (imitating life, perhaps?).  Over the past months many have criticized Mr. Levine for not quitting on a high, but personally I respect those who embrace the pathos of an uncomfortable conclusion if they feel that to be the more organic end.
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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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