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When Is The Honeymoon Over?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/12/2002 -  
Samuel Barber: The School for Scandal Overture
Paul Hindemith: Symphony: Mathis der Maler
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 5

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

Jason Giambi is a first baseman with extraordinary power and significant star potential. For many millions of dollars, he was lured over the winter from his home in Oakland and signed by the Yankees with the expectation that he would lead them to further glories. Until the season began, he was lionized in the press, compared to the immortals by being christened “the Giambino” by one enterprising local wag. However, when contests commenced on the field of play, Mr. Giambi was curiously unproductive and, after only a week of substandard performance, he quickly emerged as the whipping boy of every newspaper in town. Until recently Lorin Maazel was eagerly awaited and, even though he arrived in New York with considerable baggage and it was painfully obvious that he was not the management’s first choice, most everyone was willing to give this new maestro a chance to enliven the Philharmonic after the lackluster era of Kurt Masur. Now that the season has started, Maazel is the blushing bride of every armchair and professional critic in town, and the constant fusillade of invective could soon become as intimidating as a Roger Clemens fastball.

Just as Giambi has to compete with the ghosts of DiMaggio and Gehrig, Maestro Maazel, in choosing to begin his tenure with a reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, has boldly challenged the shades of Mahler, Walter, Mitropoulos and Bernstein head on. His years of experience in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Munich can no longer do him any good. New York is a tough town. If cities were allowed to have mottoes like states do, ours would have to be “What have you done for me lately?”

I had hoped to attend the opening night performance rather than one of its four reprises in order to avoid the inevitable vapidity from John Adams, however, I was out of town and missed all of the festivities. For the gala black tie crowd, Maestro substituted the Leonore Overture No. 3 for the new commission, although The Consecration of the House might have been a better choice ceremonially. By all accounts his Beethoven 9 was idiosyncratic, but reasonably well received.

Dispelling any doubts as to his interim status, Maazel immediately placed his personal stamp on the ensemble by means of platform positioning. Although not addressing the wrong perpetrated by his predecessor in moving the violas to the front stage left, thus banishing their sound to the bowels of the proscenium (maddeningly, Herr Masur has chosen to have his new London Phil celli in this honored place), the new music director has moved the horns into the brass section and eliminated virtually all of the group’s risers. The new blending paid instant dividends, as the brass chorales in the Hindemith were noble and positively Brucknerian. Everyone is certainly on their best behavior for Maestro and it is no exaggeration to state that this is the best that the Philharmonic has sounded for a very, very long time (although two caveats: 1. they sounded better for Masur than for Mehta, at least at first, and 2. all of these sonorous considerations are hatched in the incubator of the limitations of this orchestra’s personnel and the somewhat tinny acoustics of Avery Fisher).

But there is a price to be paid for this orchestral luminescence. Maazel, oft criticized for his over the top interpretations, actually approached the three works on the program quite gingerly. The Barber isn’t much of a piece, but the Hindemith surely is, and this reading was much too smooth and glib, glossy where Gruenewald was rough. The Tchaikovsky, one of the most emotional works in the entire repertoire, was well enunciated, however (I can’t believe that I am saying this!) I would have liked to hear a little more heart on the sleeve. Perhaps this is but a stage in Maazel’s master plan: it is important to refine the sound initially; the poetry can come later.

As the baseball season progressed, Jason Giambi acquitted himself sufficiently to remove the media monkey from his back. With Mariss Jansons replacing Maazel at the Bavarian Radio, however, it should be pointed out that the Oakland team, once relieving themselves of Giambi’s high profile and salary, rose both in prominence and in the American League standings. We will have to wait until June to see if Mr. Maazel can produce with runners in scoring position.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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