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Third Time a Charm

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/18/1999 -  
Giya Kancheli: And Farewell Goes Out Sighing...(world premiere)
Anton Bruckner: Symphony #7

Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor)
Gidon Kremer (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

Jascha Horenstein loved to tell the story of when he first arrived in Vienna as a student in 1912. Very short of funds, he had to make a choice between attending an Arthur Nikisch Beethoven concert or the world premiere of the Symphony #9 by the recently deceased conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Gustav Mahler. As most of us would have done, he chose the legendary Nikisch over the fledgling Bruno Walter and regretted his decision for the rest of his life. Imagine the excitement of being at a world premiere of a work that would so deeply influence the course of music history to come. The New York Philharmonic has had its share of such events, most notably the night in 1893 when Walter Damrosch unveiled that greatest of all American works, the Symphony #9 of the Bohemian Antonin Dvorak. So it was with great anticipation that I attended this final event in the orchestra’s "messages for the millenium" series and eagerly anticipated the response of the audience to the work of this reclusive Georgian composer who was in attendance last evening.

Mr. Kancheli is apparently prepared to go gentle into that good night as his piece was a model of understatement and pianissimo sonorities. Beginning with simulated wind sounds and developing into a quiet dialogue between an eerily high male voice and a sotto voce violin, the piece put me in mind of that Ernest Bloch work for cello and orchestra A Voice in the Wilderness. The sounds of the desert, whether land based or astral, pervade this interesting pilgrimage into the unknown age and are only occasionally shattered by orchestral intrusions designed (I’m guessing here) to remind us of how ugly the world can really be sometimes. An interesting device but ultimately no more effective than a second rate cinema score (I kept thinking of Luke Skywalker for some reason). The quiet parts were, however, highly emotive and inspiring and it is not inconceivable to think that this was indeed an important event in the developing musical history of the twenty-first century. Mr. Kancheli was feted to a large round of applause and called out several times to acknowledge the warm response of the audience.

When Kurt Masur took over as music director of the struggling Philharmonic, the first concert of his reign featured Bruckner’s mighty 7th Symphony. At that time there was much hope that this steady Central European would be a major builder of the orchestra and would rescue it from years of mediocrity. The performance that night was reassuring and we were all hopeful. Although last evening’s reading was also at the highest level that this ensemble can muster, it unfortunately called to mind the unavoidable fact that Mr. Masur has never done anything significant to improve his forces and the persistent intonation (and attitude) problems still exist in virtually the same state of inertia. The first movement last evening was very rocky, exposing the horrible trumpet section in particular, but the orchestra actually made a nice recovery in the Adagio and emphasized the broad scope of the Wagnerian third movement rather eloquently (although without that bite so important for a truly dramatic reading). Regular readers of these pages have heard my litany so many times that I’ll spare everyone the details, but there is still much work to be done at Avery Fisher to produce an ensemble of even a second level degree of professionalism. The search continues for Mr. Masur’s successor and only a charismatic magician with a highly defined sense of detail can significantly build this orchestra. The task is daunting but not impossible.

However there is hope. I have attended three Philharmonic concerts thus far this season and each has been sonically promising. There seems to be a better commitment to excellence and this shows aurally. The entire month of December is devoted to the works of Aaron Copland, so you wouldn’t catch me dead at Avery Fisher, but January promises much, especially with the residency of Anne-Sophie Muetter. I will let my hope spring eternal as I myself await the new millenium.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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