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Deconstruction on Broad Street

Academy of Music
10/16/1999 -  
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #2
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony #14

Ivo Pogorelich (piano)
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Hakan Hagegard (baritone)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

The jewel in the crown of Philadelphia's newly renamed Avenue of the Arts is the stately Academy of Music anachronistically outfitted with ersatz gaslight fixtures visible for blocks. The interior of this grand building is Rococo opulence itself, with golden statues of Herculean figures supporting the ceiling and pastoral scenes beatifically looking down on the sartorial splendor of the patrons below. The Academy is shaped like the opera house that it once was and therein lies the inherent acoustical problem. Much of the sound disappears up into the rafters and there is a curious parabolic phenomenon where sound actually travels from the audience to the stage. The orchestra management has attempted to solve this auditory dilemma by erecting a set depicting a concert hall and installing it on the stage. This allows the audience to at least imagine that the acoustics are normal although this particular device always puts me in mind of the dining scene in Don Giovanni (or perhaps "dining with Duke Humphrey" would be a better image). The actual effect of seeing a fake concert venue staring back at you from a real one is more that of a Warhol painting than a Tiepolo. The long-term answer to this quandary is the ambitious new concert hall, now just a massive crater a block away. The city fathers are bent on redoing the face of downtown Philadelphia and a new athletic stadium will be built as well right in the thick of it all.

Some forty years ago, Leonard Bernstein addressed the Carnegie Hall crowd and admitted to them that he totally disagreed with the conception of his soloist and then proceeded to conduct Glenn Gould and the New York Philharmonic in the slowest Brahms Piano Concerto #1 in the history of performance. If Maestro Sawallisch were not so reserved a personality he might very well have made that same speech last night as he was obviously diametrically opposed to Ivo Pogorelich and his glacial rendering of the normally gorgeous Rach II. Mr. Pogorelich is bent on doing some renovations of his own and steadfastly kept his trop lent idea intact even in the face of numerous attempts on the part of the orchestra to speed him up. The problem with a really slow conception is that everyone must be in total agreement and there must be major adjustments in phrasing, bowing and intonation in order to make it work. Lorin Maazel has been successful with some very slow performances of the Mahler symphonies, but even he falters occasionally (as I recently reported after hearing the Vienna Philharmonic). In the case of the wonderfully melodic Rachmaninoff it was apparent that neither the listeners nor the players were happy with the elongated lines which truly distorted these Russian truffles into pieces of pulled taffy. Time and again Sawallisch would try to have his magnificent string section play these melodies in some sort of recognizable, albeit ritardando form, only to have Mr. Pogorelich slow down the reprise by half. By the time the violas performed the amazing third movement opening (the Full Moon and Empty Arms theme) and the soloist answered with a resoundingly negative autopsy of the melody in which each note was left bare for us to examine, the battle had degenerated from irritating to just dull and everyone was impatiently waiting for it all to be over. Of course the composer himself performed this piece often in this hall but I don't think that this version would have appealed even to his legendarily dour weltanschaung. "I just wanted to wind him up and get him going!" was one of the comments that I overheard at intermission.

In this great season of all twentieth century music, one of the thorniest scores that this conservative audience will hear is the remarkable song cycle known as the Symphony #14 of Shostakovich. Mahler is often mentioned as the sonic inspiration for this Russian master and surely this is his Lied von der Erde. The piece was given its US premiere by Ormandy and the Philadelphians on New Year's Day 1971 and this continued a tradition established by Stokowski for the regular premiering of works by this exotically radical composer who captured the American public's imagination in the 1940's as a symbol of political heroism and intellect (there is even a Time Magazine from those days with Dmitri on the cover). The harmonic language of the Symphony #14 is extremely advanced and the spare orchestration (only 23 players) reinforces the grim nature of its subject matter: man's attempts to deal with the inevitability of death. The poems are written in several languages and Maestro opted for the all-Russian version. This produced some problems for the soprano, whose diction was atrocious in the fast passages, but did allow the majestic voice of Hakan Hagegard to resonate throughout the hall in a splendidly emotional performance evocative of the true source of this musical material: Moussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. Mr. Hagegard's performance of At the Sante Jail (words by Apollinaire) was breathtaking.

I'm beginning to see now that it was Maestro Sawallisch who was the inspiration behind the idea of doing an entire season of twentieth century music. He is exhibiting a hidden flair for the idiom somewhat surprising given his stereotypical Central European career and his staid, even stuffy, demeanor. This season is a particularly exciting one in Philadelphia and, as the guest conductors take over, I for one wish that Wolfgang would spend a little more time in the city that now attempts to call him their own.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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