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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/15/1999 -  
John Corigliano: Clarinet Concerto
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #7

Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet)
Juilliard Orchestra
Robert Spano (conductor)

There is an unwritten law in my profession that doesn't allow you to be too hard on children and I want to state unequivocally from the beginning that I have nothing but admiration for the students of the Juilliard School. Their diligence and dedication are beyond reproach and they deserve to be led by the finest musicians available. However, the administration of the school is either unconcerned or unaware of the erosion of performance level that has been exhibited there lately. Earlier this season I reported on the self-serving posturing of David Robertson, who seemed more interested in making a good impression than on creating good music (or educating his charges). On Monday night the Juilliard Orchestra delivered a poor, under-rehearsed performance of the great Symphony #7 of Mahler. The fault for this substandard event was squarely the responsibility of the conductor Robert Spano, a posturer and poseur who seems to have the school's officials buffaloed.

Although there were moments of inspiration in the first movement (the six member percussion section played their crucially important and difficult part expertly) the overall sound of the ensemble, particularly the string sections, was disturbingly amateurish, not at all the sound that Juilliard has labored so long to create and extant as recently as last year. There was also an impressive display of ensemble coordination in the halting third movement, known as Schattenhaft (like a shadow), that even elicited a smattering of applause from the partisan crowd. But overall this performance was a far cry from acceptable and this is scandalous because the future of music is at stake when these talented students are not guided properly.

Perhaps the best example of the shortcomings of the conductor was the fourth movement. It was painfully apparent that the group had spent little time preparing this normally charming andante amoroso and the wonderful quality of the serenade was totally lost in this lifeless reading. Further, the extremely important mandolin part, so inventive in producing the colors of a summer evening, was not even deemed worthy of its own player, rather an unfortunate violist was pressed into service to toss off this music. Although he tried his best, the violist could not play a trill on this unique instrument and his attempts were embarrassing. The last few phrases, which gracefully usher the movement into oblivion (Mahler marks the score morendo-dying away), were not even played by this fellow and so the movement ended completely out of character. This is inexcusable but was consistent with this pathetic reading, where the conductor felt free to pause dramatically where he shouldn't and totally ignore Mahler's directions in the score to play particular phrases "more broadly".

The finale was much too fast (many conductors make this mistake, not realizing that the movement is much more powerful at a slower tempo) and as a result was sloppy. The work is so great that the overall effect on the audience was exhilarating (I can't imagine a Mahler 7 that wouldn't be) but the effect on the students was devastating. It was as if the conductor were saying that it's okay to be slovenly and lacking in intonation, no one will care if you give them a loud and fast ending and enough exaggerated gestures. Just recently the school had several excellent conductors, among them Otto Werner Mueller, who conducted a fabulous Bruckner 8 at Avery Fisher, and the young Peruvian Miguel Harth-Bedoya, but these two men have mysteriously disappeared (although the fine James De Priest is still on the faculty). But the current crop of leaders leaves much to be desired.

As a longtime admirer of the composer's father, I should probably not go into detail on my reaction to the Clarinet Concerto of John Corigliano, Jr. Suffice it to say that it was impossible to judge the performance of the student clarinetist since his part consisted of nothing more than bleats and brays and the music as a whole was so arbitrary that one had to take on faith that we were hearing the notes on the printed page.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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