Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A major
Emanuel Ax (Piano)
National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, Christoph Eschenbach (Conductor)
C. Eschenbach (© D.R. Central Picture)
Carnegie Hall is an integral part of a noble experiment that brings together American musicians ages 16 to 19 for an intensive workshop leading to an international tour which this year encompasses Amsterdam, Montpellier, Copenhagen, and Prague, led by conductor Valery Gergiev, offering music by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Before embarkation they performed a deceptively simple piece by Mozart and a devilishly difficult symphony of Bruckner.
The group was dressed rather distinctively, the young men wearing cherry red pants with white shirt and dark tie and jacket. They reminded of characters in a 1930’s movie, with William Hopper or Ronald Reagan in the lead as the town football star. The women wore the same red pants with white blouses and black neckerchiefs, the traditional girl-scout look. It will be easy for their future European audiences to recognize them as Americans.
Bruckner never heard his Sixth Symphony as he died in 1896 and the heavily expurgated premiere in 1899 was conducted by his star pupil at the University of Vienna, Gustav Mahler (Brahms was also on the faculty at the same time, leading to a somewhat chilly atmosphere in the halls of ivy). Performances of Bruckner are rare in New York, averaging only one or two evenings annually, but this season all nine of the symphonies and even the Te Deum will be on offer.
It is difficult to imagine any of these future performances being any better than the one now under discussion. The orchestra began at a thrillingly high volume and I was immediately concerned that they could not preserve their intonation at such a frightening level. However, maestro Eschenbach indeed knew what he was doing as this remarkable ensemble continued to express themselves in very full-throated terms. Not only did their visual image remind of a bygone era, but their overall zaftig sound paid homage to the great conductors of the earlier recorded past, particularly Walter and Krips. This was playing of the highest order and woefully rare in today’s masochistically spare sound environment. One need only mention the rapturous Adagio – Sehr feierlich, the second half of which was a prime example of ear-catching solemnity. What a joy it was to hear these superb musicians before the union gets to them.
The Mozart that began the concert was an important primer in the art of accompaniment with Christoph Eschenbach, a pianist himself, holding his forces in check so as not to eclipse the tinkling of Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. Here the chemistry was simply awkward, the ensemble making some rather unfortunate mistakes – a sloppy horn opening comes to mind – while Mr. Ax seemed to simply be going through the emotions. All was a bit dull, but now, reflected in tranquility, just a niggling memory after the magnificent Bruckner. I should also mention the dog not barking: This was an audience filled with young children and yet I detected no extraneous noise or auditory sounds of boredom. There are simply some evenings where everything turns out right.
One final note: This outreach program is partially funded by the Jack Benny Family Foundation for Music Education. Benny Kubelsky was a surprisingly good violinist who hid his light under a comic bushel, working in burlesque, vaudeville, radio, film and television. One particularly significant show featured guest fiddler Isaac Stern who, in a rare indictment of the recording industry of the time, plays on a disc to be marketed as the stylings of Jack Benny. Also in the show, of course, is an argument between Benny and Stern about financial compensation. Tonight’s splendid and optimistic concert is excellent partial repayment.