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Name That Tone

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/14/1999 -  
Lou Harrison: Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra
Anton Bruckner: Symphony #5

Robert McDuffie (violin), Christopher Taylor (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Moest (conductor)

When I was a young man I used to be puzzled by a certain note in the Symphony #3 of Brahms. In the third movement, just before the lovely horn solo that is the main theme's recapitulation, there is a seemingly meaningless and out of place note for the horn that, even to this day, still jars me a little. As I began to study music more formally I realized that this note was inserted by Brahms as a kindness to the soloist (his father had been a horn player) so that there would be some warm air in the instrument for the tender beginning of the great solo and so that the player's embouchure would be immediately established. Bruckner shows no such professional courtesy to his wind and brass players and many of the entrances in the Symphony #5 are naked, requiring a skillful and sensitive attack to make them work. Here are several possible explanations as to why the Philharmonic sounded so vague in their entrances last night, forcing its audience to try and locate the proper pitch in their collective unconscious not once in a while but on a regular basis:

1. In homage to the slendro tuning of Indonesia, which inspired the curtain-raising piece by Lou Harrison, the members of the ensemble used a sliding scale of pitch as an emblem of the pantheistic presence of God in this first of Bruckner's spiritual essays.

2. Welser-Moest, in a subtle display of overtonal analysis, attempted to recreate the series of pitches that hover in the ceiling during an organ recital as a reminder of the composer's harmonic roots as the organist of Linz Cathedral.

3. Understandably given his reputation, the Philharmonic players simply assumed that Welser-Moest would not show up and didn't bother to practice their parts.

4. The slovenly attitude of this ensemble spilled over into yet another embarrasingly sloppy performance.

Poor Bruckner! It has been a difficult year for him in New York. No major orchestra programmed any of his music all season except for the much anticipated performance of the Eighth with the Royal Concertgebouw under Chailly and then that concert was cancelled in favor of a fine afternoon of Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. Finally the Philharmonic unveiled its interpretation of the Ninth under Sir Colin Davis recently and it was positively dreadful (parenthetically it was nice to not feel for once like a voice in the wilderness, as the more "legitimate" local newspaper really slammed the group for this insulting evening). Now we were exposed to this amateurish Fifth where the individual sections seemed to be almost competing to see who could wander the farthest from the note in question.

This magnificent symphony is the first of the three (the 8th and 9th are the others) wherein Bruckner undertakes his search for God in secular music and it is a difficult work for a listener unfamiliar with this penitent's style of expression. The symphony is long and loud and for it to be effective it must be performed at a level of intensity rare even in the great orchestras. Anyone new to the piece (and I had the bittersweet experience of introducing a friend to it last night) needs a loving performance to keep these metaphysical thoughts and emotions flowing for well over an hour. Ironically, Welser-Moest shaped a decent performance and seemed to be in command of the architectural design of the work. However the dozens of ruined entrances made the experience more like visiting the dentist than the priest. The horn section, usually one of the more reliable in this problematic group, truly had an off night and the exposed wind solos, particularly in the second movement, were brittle and unconvincing. The string playing was, by lowered Philharmonic standards to which we have all become accustomed, fairly good but the most glaring crimes were perpetrated by the trumpets. Here it was not so much a question of intonation as overall sound quality. The section is meant to represent the angelic messengers (anyone familiar with Bruckner's star composition pupil Gustav Mahler will recognize this effect from the latter's "Resurrection" Symphony) and is featured prominently throughout this massive study. As if the dentist had referred us to the oral surgeon, each time this section bleated out its part the resulting sound was actually ugly, not just tinny and lacking in warmth, but truly painful. After a while the music seemed to disappear altogether, leaving us only in dread of the next twinge. I saw a mirror image of my distaste in the faces of the patrons around me.

The breezy Suite of Lou Harrison was a joy (and in retrospect the only good reason for attending). It is one of those open harmony California works of his that are so refreshingly uncomplicated. Harrison is an inveterate experimenter with instrumentation and he includes a part for tack piano (an upright with metal thumb-tacks embedded in the hammers) to suggest the Eastern sounds of the koto. The grand piano used by Mr. Taylor, however, effectively drowned the sound of this unique device. The openness of the score perfectly captured the feel of the gamelan and allowed us all to experience the wind of the Balinese outdoor performance. The short piece was the much-touted Philharmonic debut of the forty something Mr. McDuffie, but it was an unusual choice as his passages were not particularly interesting except as a part of the whole. Not everyone needs to debut with the Bruch G Minor Concerto, but a little virtuosity might have been more appropriate.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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