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The Fourth Annual Lully Awards

At the recent Ives Festival of the New York Philharmonic, one could not help but notice the oceans of empty seats at Avery Fisher Hall (please, no Phil jokes, that’s my job) and reflect on the contrast to the pre-911 world of local concert attendance. The orchestra that has been, by far, the most successful non-operatic entity in our town at attracting audiences for many years is now suffering right along with everyone else. Rarely, at any venue, is there a concert now in which every seat is full. It appears that terrorism might have focused our attention catalytically on the shrinking attendance problem, but the erosion is just that, a steady downsizing of an audience that votes with its feet (or, in this case, its ears). Certainly dwindling crowds are not the result of a decline in quality. In fact, this past season had many more high than low lights, concerts and performances which were positively and thrillingly ageless.


In this fourth year of Lully awards there were more candidates for this featured statuette than in any other. After much agonizing, I decided on the RCO because of their practically superhuman discipline of attack and coordination as well as their consistently rich sound. Even under guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt, whose imaginative skills may be a bit underdeveloped, the concert pairing the fourth symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky was remarkable. It is hard to imagine a more perfectly balanced Classical performance then this Beethoven, a living, breathing realization of Schumann’s famous anointing of the piece as the “fair maiden between two giants”. Coupled with an extremely exciting Tchaikovsky, this was close to an ideal musical experience. The Concertgebouw is in remarkably good shape and poised for even greater future moments, considering that the runner-up for this award had to be the knockout Pittsburgh Mahler 7 under Jansons, who takes over in Amsterdam this fall.


Sir Simon Rattle once described an evening of Tchaikovsky as “my idea of Hell”. He should have to sit at Avery Fisher and listen to an entire night of Beethoven and Mozart re-composed by Lorin Maazel. One wonders who this uncompromisingly supercilious maestro considers to be the most important employee of the New York Philharmonic. My supposition would be that his most vital player has to be the man who positions the spotlight. By now, everyone in the audience realizes that it is the self-styled composer Maazel whose works are being performed, regardless of what the poster out front might indicate. Only Michael Tilson Thomas’ gangsta rap version of the Mahler 5 could possibly compete with this fussily micromanaged ”Pastorale”. Is it live or is it Memorex? Is it Maazel or is it Beethoven? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.


Abraham Lincoln once described the argument of one of his political opponents as being as thin as “soup made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death”.
Opera in concert can be even less satisfying. Not only are there no sets or costumes, but there is little opportunity for interaction amongst the characters. Add to this the acoustical problems inherent in presenting mere mortals in front of a hundred piece orchestra and gestures which once prompted Toscanini to inquire of his principals “is it raining?”, and the formula for failure is complete. Yet somehow Colin Davis performed a miracle in New York this season, presenting a most memorable Peter Grimes against all odds. Sir Colin seems to have done this by emphasizing the strengths of the bastardized art form rather than fatalistically accepting its weaknesses. Without question, the star of this particular Grimes was the magnificent LSO, the big numbers the Four Sea Interludes. Even the relative insufficiencies of the singer in the title role seemed to add to the overall thesis: it is the sea that triumphs. Now, six months later, friends and fellow critics are still gushing about this gut-wrenching afternoon.


In a season when this reviewer heard Renee Fleming sing the “Song to the Moon”, he was still even more impressed with the Ulrica of Ewa Podles. Coincidentally also in a concert version (although nowhere near the quality of the aforementioned Davis realization), Ms. Podles’ reminded once again that she is actually a creature from either another planet where singing is revered as the highest art or else a time-traveler sent from the golden age of Ernestine Schumann-Heink. I have a good friend in the Collegiate Chorale and she told me that Podles’ entrance took them all by surprise. In an otherwise wooden ensemble performance, this larger than life superstar slithered (there is no other word for what she did) out onto that stage with a facial expression right out of D.W. Griffith. Even before she opened her mouth, she electrified the entire audience (and the singers as well, as I found out after the fact). Once she intoned her first note, everyone else might just as well have gone home. We only had ears for her.


From my review:

“Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg tore into the second and fourth movements of this concerto [the first of Shostakovich] like a hungry wolf, her prodigious technique challenging the Minnesotans to follow or get out of the way. This is fashion week in New York and this white hot performer came dressed for a downtown club: sequined black pants and a piebald blouse announcing that she was pumped up and dangerous tonight. What really impressed this listener beyond the drop dead pyrotechnics was her poetic ability to venture deep into the soul of this tortured work, the slower sections…emerging as the wounded cries from a thousand winters on the steppes. Playing at such a high intensity level, the soloist prowled the stage like a caged predator during her rests, bobbed up and down with glee whilst negotiating the most difficult of arpeggiated passages with their often shifting rhythms and speeds, and needed to compose herself with deep breaths after every movement (I had to do the same).”


What a dull world it would be without Nadja. At a chamber concert during the same season as her triumphant Carnegie collaboration with Osmo Vanska just described above, she was petulant, rude, unfocused, forgetful, sloppy, giggly and talkative. There is probably no greater fan of Otto Klemperer still alive today than this critic. What I specifically remember was the expectation leading to one of his concerts. Which Otto would show up tonight? The commanding and extremely sensitive artistic giant who worked directly with Mahler or the frightened little man who once set himself on fire and, on various other occasions in a long career, woke up beaten and bloodied in an alley and even once unexpectedly married! The excitement of those truly great Klemperer performances of, for example, the ”Resurrection” Symphony evolved organically from his very bipolarity. Nadja is the archetypical “girl with the curl”, and no matter how horrid she can be, I’ll always come back for those supreme moments when the clouds disappear.


Over the years, one gets spoiled here in New York and begins to take for granted expert technique and poetic interpretation. It takes a lot to make this critic sit up and take notice. Why this particular recital was so exceptional was its revelatory nature. This was an opportunity to hear an entirely new approach to a classic late Schubert sonata after a masterful first half of Beethoven and Liszt. Maestro Kocsis (now a fine conductor as well) paused for so long after the first phrase of the D960 that only prodigious talent and profound thought (as well as supreme confidence) could keep this opening from sounding pretentious in retrospect. The entire performance was a rumination on the nature of linear time, the very best integration of philosophical and aesthetic principles leading to a spiritual conclusion heard in a very long time (and then almost exclusively on old recordings). One sensed that they were present at the creation. Since we are quoting, here’s the New Criterion’s Jay Nordlinger:

“We all knew that Kocsis was a great pianist, but this was awesome confirmation. As the audience applauded, I turned to the critic sitting behind me and said, ‘Frankly, that’s some of the best piano playing I have ever heard.’ He said, ‘Same with me.’”


Who knew? Although led by an American, this excellent ensemble has not come onto the JFK airport radar screen for quite a number of years. David Zinman led a superb rendering of the Brahms 2, notable for the luxuriance of its string sound. Seldom has this most opulent of symphonies sounded so radiant and comforting, a revisiting of the Beethoven 6 without “those damned cuckoos” as Lenny used to say. The first half of the program was an exceedingly impressive version of the same composer’s Piano Concerto # 1, emphasizing the pristine lines of master craftsman Leif Ove Andsnes. To be perfectly frank, I chose this event strictly on repertoire, not imagining that it would be anywhere near this good. But this Swiss orchestra is the equal of many of the finest on the Continent and, for those of us who revel in sound with a decidedly woody grain, the superior of several much more highly touted ensembles.


In the movie “Brewster’s Millions”, Richard Pryor and John Candy play baseball for a team mired so far down in the minor leagues that the tracks of a local railroad run through their outfield and the games have to be halted occasionally while the train runs by. Unfortunately, the music at Carnegie’s new sub-basement Zankel Hall cannot always be so silenced on schedule and therefore must compete for our attention with the unbelievably intrusive noise of the N and R subways running just on the other side of the wall. Carnegie spent the equivalent of the fortune that Pryor stands to inherit in the film on renovating what had previously been itself a cinema and, way back in the days of Andrew Carnegie, a recital space, but apparently decided to scrimp on soundproofing. What is especially fun to observe is the hall’s administration trying to pretend that they really don’t hear the disturbance. Perhaps there is some truth to this, since they can’t possibly hear some of the dreadful noise now emanating from the new stage and still believe that they are furthering the cause of serious music going forward.


This award was originally established to highlight a sterling performance within an otherwise ordinary affair, but this year it goes to an artist who gave us a very fine recital overall and yet was still able to feature one extraordinary rendition that was, in this reviewer’s mind, the absolute best version of this particular work that I have ever heard. The violinist was Joshua Bell; the piece the Sonata # 3 of Edvard Grieg. Such passion, such grief, such breathtaking slight pauses, such abandon and yet such total technical control. Like his contemporary Evgeny Kissin, Bell may be just hitting his stride: forget all of those wonderful youthful efforts, now they are each entering that flowering stage of maturity wherein the emotions can still run deep but are colored all the more poignantly by the first tinges of regret. I am truly sorry that all of my gentle readers could not have been there this night. One must not forget to mention the delicious playing of pianist Simon Mulligan, especially in the introduction to the second movement.


This is a new category this year, inspired by the positioning of three versions of this beautiful work in just a short time this spring. Mr. Tetzlaff was a model of controlled intensity and deeply understood this powerful essay’s therapeutic subtext. Supported by perhaps the finest Berg conductor now practicing the fine art of subtle accompaniment, this thoughtful soloist began on the open strings so quietly as to be almost unheard, the “memory of an angel” already with and part of us. Some MET orchestra miscues tarnished the performance just a tad, but the spirituality of Maestro Levine’s approach more than made amends. Of course, we won’t always have so many Berg concertos to compare (although wouldn’t it be super if we did?), but there are often significant overlaps in a long season and so, hopefully, the concept will grow legs in the years to come.


That fabulous Peter Grimes was at Avery Fisher; the only compelling opera at Carnegie Hall this season was soap opera. Not exactly Shakespeare but more Falconcrest, the Carnegie family exhibited enough disfunctionality for an entire Douglas Sirk film festival. The fear is that their new populist approach will cheapen the product over time. This critic overheard two patrons discussing the new Zankel space while waiting for a concert at the main hall (now called “Stern Auditorium”) to begin. “There’s nothing for us there” was the shared conclusion. Traveling in California recently, I heard Carnegie artistic adviser Ara Guzelemian on my car radio discussing “the great” Jimi Hendrix. If this be indeed the case, then what (and where) are the proper superlatives for Beethoven?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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