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Hello, I Must Be Going...

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
09/22/2017 -  & September 23, 2017
Philip Glass: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Katia and Marielle Labèque (Pianists)
New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

J. van Zweden (© Bert Hulselmans)

There’s always a boring short!
Woody Allen, Take the Money and Run

It is the time to offer our sincere congratulations, best wishes and, most importantly, our prayers to Jaap van Zweden, the new maestro of the New York Philharmonic. He doesn’t officially take over for another year, but is opening the 2017-18 season with a performance of the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler, once the driving force behind this storied ensemble. What is spooky is that our last concert of the season is scheduled for May 30, 2018 down the street at Carnegie Hall when the MET Orchestra will present...wait for it...the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler!

The piece is in certain ways a student work, as Mahler, filled with insecurities, began to study during this period with Alexander von Zemlinsky, ironically an on again off again “escort” of Alma Mahler. There are certain elementary harmonic journeys in the piece, not inconsistent with a student’s best work, but Mahler being Mahler, the symphony in question (nicknamed the “Giant” in its day) veers off into the realm of the profound and heavenly beautiful (cf. movement number 4).

But first Philip Glass. This well-known composer achieved quite a milestone earlier this year as he turned 80. He is honored here as the composer who has been chosen to welcome the New York Philharmonic season and is the holder of the 2017-2018 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. However, he is also a composer who has been mocked and derided over the years, being the butt of jokes in such cerebral television comedies as Frasier and Mozart in the Jungle. He reminds me of a carnival barker, promising to present odd and unique creatures, but disappointing once the curtain is opened. Not much time should be spent on him; suffice it to say that this music was immediately liked by the overflow audience, as it was at the level of juvenilia that can be so appealing to a modern ear. The piece was a jazzy pastiche of thematic material treated as waste and spewed out like the incessant chanting of the background music from some rather low budget TV cop show. Repetitive and derivative, it relied heavily on its six percussionists (eight if you count the Labèque sisters). It should also be noted that this product of the Glassworks was not included in the gala opening night concert for prospective donors, but, after all, they contribute heavily to the cause and must be treated with kid gloves.

An intermission was sorely needed to cleanse the palette and when we returned we were ready to listen to the first meaningful example of the new regime’s aural landscape. Sadly, that terrain was as bleak as anything poorly prepared in the pre-Alan Gilbert era. I happened to have as a companion this evening a horn and trumpet player who, after the performance, stated that he enjoyed the first two movements because the brass was left untethered to romp about to the detriment of the musical landscape as a whole. He was correct about the effect, but most of us were not pleased by this unhealthy disproportion.

I never thought that I would state this, but I miss Phil Myers (Phil of the Phil), the principal hornist of the orchestra. It is polite not to mention by name the two who took his place this evening, but it is impossible to not note their slipshod effort. While Maestro just moved along seemingly without a care in the world, the third movement – an ersatz horn concerto – was a disaster filled with wrong notes and misplaced efforts to hit them in their exact center. My lip was hurting in sympathy with the bad night that these young hornists were having, although the pain should really have been in my ears.

Those who know their Mahler 5 from the Visconti movie with Dirk Bogarde’s make-up melting in the sun would have been disappointed with the new leader’s sing-song version of the normally electrically beautiful and longing Adagietto that is the fourth movement. Although the harpist played beautifully, the strings totally ignored the score’s instructions of Sehr langsam and just moved along at a brisk pace. This was a poor choice for our new leader as its beauty was simply stampeded by the desire to move along. The fifth movement is a pastiche that, I readily admit, I still do not understand even after hundreds of hearings. At least their leader knew its secret, which is to end emphatically and all will be forgiven. The crowd (the same ones who loved Mr. Glass) showed their appreciation to an ensemble that, at the end of the day, simply played poorly. If there is an optimistic aspect to this sloppy play, it is that Jaap van Zweden has nowhere to go but up.

Fred Kirshnit



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