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Bach to the Future

Academy of Music
02/12/2000 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Dumbarton Oaks Concerto; Chorale variations on "Vom Himmel hoch"
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto
Leopold Stokowski: Four Bach Transcriptions

Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

In a fortuitous confluence of anniversaries the Philadelphia Orchestra was able to present the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (250th death year) tonight while staying true to their syllabus of an entire season of music written in the twentieth century (it is the orchestra's 100th birthday) by featuring several of the Bach transcriptions of their superstar music director Leopold Stokowski and rounding out the program with works inspired by the Leipzig master. After some inconsequential attempts by Stravinsky to recreate the spirit and the spare sound of Bach, the orchestra accompanied the masterful violinist Kyung-Wha Chung in a superb reading of the Berg concerto "To the Memory of an Angel". Truly angelic was the playing of this consummate artist who has severely curtailed her concert career in order to raise her children, who were seen eating pizza backstage before the concert. Ms. Chung is an extremely emotive player and convinced me once again that this concerto is the most beautiful work of the entire century. Written in response to the death of 15 year old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Berg's close friend Alma Mahler, the piece relies for solace on the Bach chorale from the Cantata # 60 (the melody actually written by Ahle) after first exploring the painful and yet excruciatingly heavenly emotions surrounding this shattering experience. The Philadelphians have close ties to the piece, Stokowski being a champion of both Berg and his teacher Schoenberg, and the orchestra being intimately involved in the US premiere of Berg's masterpiece opera Wozzeck. Louis Krasner, also an American, was the dedicatee and technical advisor for the work and performed it in Philadelphia shortly after Berg's untimely demise from blood poisoning incurred from the bite of a wasp. Wolfgang Sawallisch, an intelligent if often absent music director, has shown once again to everyone's surprise that he is conversant in the language of dodecaphonism, bring out many subtle shades and previously unheard voices in this sensitive accompaniment. Most notable were the harp glissandi and the ending notes of the basses, almost never pronounced on recordings. Ms. Chung and her countryman concertmaster David Kim played a gorgeous duet towards the close as she went over and encouraged him in her signature way, her body language and facial expressions leaving no doubt as to her commitment to the music and her ability to raise the level of play of those around her. The crowd was moved and very appreciative in its response although I could have wished for a few seconds of silence after this most poignant of endings.

With the possible exception of Gloria Vanderbilt, Leopold Stokowski's greatest passion was the music of Bach. He tried very hard to spread the gospel by arranging and orchestrating many of the cantor's compositions to take advantage of the new "Philadelphia sound" which he himself invented. I feel a bit of a Judas for what I am about to say since I am writing this from the home of my organist friends who graciously put me up for the weekends when I come down to review the orchestra here, but I much prefer the sound of the big orchestra to that of the organ because the overtones are much clearer and there is virtually no auditory overlap (I have the same problem with the harpsichord). Also, I learned this music as a child from these transcriptions and as a non-Protestant listener (and I believe that I am the only one of these at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts) I would never be familiar with Ein' feste Burg or Wachet auf without the interference of Stokowski. Having said all of that, there is a certain Bugs Bunny quality to this music and it has to be classified in the "guilty pleasures" department. But all in good fun and the orchestra was superb, infusing these old chestnuts with just the right degree of AM radio kitsch. Everyone went home happy, whistling the dramatic theme from the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and why not? Throwing it up in the face of the naysayers on the orchestra's board, the listeners of Philadelphia have packed the Academy for this season of all modern music and I for one am absolutely delighted.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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