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Dream Performance

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/24/1999 -  
B>Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony #3; Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream

Christopher Plummer (narrator)
Boys of St. Thomas Choir
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Sir Neville Marriner (conductor)

Now in his 75th year, Neville Marriner can look back at a career that significantly changed performance history in the second half of the twentieth century. Leaving the principal chair of the London Symphony in 1959 he formed his own chamber orchestra which he led from the concertmaster's seat until mounting the podium permanently in the late 1960's. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is the chief orchestra responsible for the Baroque revival (a mixed blessing in my opinion, particularly considering the deleterious effect on classical radio) and its refined style has become the inspiration of the entire early music movement (again not necessarily to the benefit of contemporary audiences). What has been a constant all of these years is the high quality of performance, the exquisite balances and the tightness of execution almost impossible to duplicate in a full-sized ensemble.

Last night's reading of the "Scottish" Symphony is a good example. From the opening measures it was obvious that the string tone towered above our illustrious local orchestra and Marriner also achieved the pinnacle of balance between wind and string sections to the level wherein when both played the melody at once the listener was aware of each individual line and yet the sound was expertly blended, not forced but natural in its sonority. This is a small sound from a small group, just right for this elegant work (Mendelssohn's own Gewandhaus consisted of only 35 players). The tone painting of this lazy genius (ultimately, Felix was too rich to be a prolific composer) worked its magic and the storm-buffeted craggy coast magically appeared in our mind's ear.

The featured work of the evening was Christopher Plummer's own synthesis of passages from Shakespeare read to the accompaniment of Mendelssohn's immortal music. Some actors have forged a nice niche for themselves as narrators for classical concerts. Here in New York we have the delightful Werner Klemperer who often performs locally as the speaker in such works as Schoenberg's Gurrelieder or Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals and of course has rich musical lineage. Plummer here has done more than lend his thespian abilities to a musical piece. He has instead transformed the experience into an evening of theatre with, as he says in his notes to the program, the realization of Bottom's aspiration to "play all of the parts."

And play them he did. Plummer has the ability to perform dialogues with himself and so acted scenes between Oberon and Puck (although not Pyramus and Thisbe, for which I was hoping) and portraying with voice and gesture each of the several main comic characters in this charming work. Like a nineteenth century solo touring actor in the American West, Plummer held sway with the audience with only his voice and a few bodily movements as the tools of his trade. The music was again beautifully performed, although relegated in this version to a secondary role in spots (Plummer also stated in his notes that he was trying to correct the imbalance which always led to the music's dominance).

Listening to the music I was struck by the thought that no composition in the rich history of incidental music is as apt for its subject (just think of the first four chords) as this remarkable score (although I saw the film with the great Korngold arrangement long before I ever read the play and this may have colored my associations). There is also hardly a more purely beautiful score in all of Romantic music (what melody anywhere is superior to the Nocturne?) and this performance highlighted the magical loveliness of the music as well as its shimmering ethereal quality.

Really the only flaws in the performance were the physical positioning of the boy choir and soloists (too far back and not on risers sufficient to allow their seemingly sweet sounds to reach us unadulterated) and the gentle but conscious subjugation of the music (if one chooses to think of this as a shortcoming). Even Sir Neville played some of the parts and he was obviously enjoying himself immensely throughout as was the sold-out audience. Very rare for New York, the crowd actually stayed and applauded the performers warmly and did not push and elbow each other in the usual mad dash for the exits. At first I thought that this was because of the extremely high quality of the performance, but I realized through snatches of conversation on my way out that it was more of a theatre crowd not sufficiently initiated in the protocol of boorishness that is ingrained in the normal New York concertgoer.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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