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Tunes From Our Terra Incognita

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/09/2012 -  
“Spring For Music III”
Edgard Varèse: Nocturnal
Kurt Weill: Symphony No. 1 (“Berliner Symphonie”)
Ferruccio Busoni: Piano Concerto, opus 39

Hila Plitmann (Soprano), Marc-André Hamelin (Piano)
Men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Director), New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Jacques Lacombe (Conductor)

J. Lacombe (© Jean-François Bérubé)

Paris, Istanbul, Bangkok and Beijing are destinations rolling trippingly off the tongues of concert-going New Yorkers. But mention “New Jersey” at a dinner party, and miasmic clouds darken the room, tubercular wheezing and haunting cackles the only sounds piercing the gloom.

New Yorkers simply don’t see the point of New Jersey, outside of being the home of Springsteen, Jon Stewart, Bon Jovi and Walt Whitman. To actually go there is, compared to the Louvre or Topkapi or the Forbidden City, is inconceivable.

And I plead mea culpa to avoiding the state, frequently having been invited to hear the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and each time giving an excuse. “Er...I’d love to go, but this is the opening season of South Park, so...” Or, “Gosh, the program sounds fascinating, but I promised my dog I would give him a bath that evening...”

Last night, patience won out. The New Jersey Symphony, under their splendid Quebec-born conductor Jacques Lacombe, not only showed up at Carnegie Hall, but their choices satisfied every requirement for great programming. Thematically, it was devoted to Ferruccio Busoni and two of his most interesting students. Prudently economical, the male voices of the Westminster Choir could be used for two of the pieces. Musically, the three works had three totally diverse styles. And audiences looking for imagination found (as is the rule in “Spring For Music”) music rarely performed in New York.

Even better, it gave the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra all the space they needed to show how deft they are. This program had neither the grandiosity of the opening Shostakovich by the Houston Symphony or the razzmatazz of the Edmonton Orchestra. Instead, we were offered intensity, stolidity, innovation–and enough percussion to make that Shostakovich 11th Symphony Monday night sound like a Telemann flute concerto.

That was the opening, Nocturnal, the unfinished nine-minute piece which was reconstructed by Edgard Varèse’s friend and collaborator Chou Wen-chung. The title is misleading, since not a note of tranquil night is here. Instead, this Varèse goes back to the beginning of time, to an era when magical sounds, and unfinished lines by Anaïs Nin are uttered, chanted and sung by a soprano and men’s chorus. The ideas may come from Levi-Strauss, but the music seems more a reflection of Antonin Artaud, who felt that the only art was that which deprived the listener of even the faintest idea of our real world.

The sounds made by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra–which I found, to my astonishment, to be 90 years old–were themselves astonishing. Seven percussionists, led by David Fein, made their vast battery of instruments not only give a mighty wallop, but actually sing. Singing sometimes with the chorus, sometimes with the deft Israeli soprano, Hila Plitmann.

So shattering were the sounds from this relatively small orchestra that it was agonizing to sit with a whole audience. Varèse had made these chants and vibrations to change each individual life. Each person in Carnegie Hall, then, would detract from that ideal effect

The real ideal would be for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to play the Nocturnal for one listener at a time. Yes, they would have to through it about 200 perrformances, which is not exactly realistic. But neither is the other-worldly music.

Busoni taught Varèse, but he also taught the one-time atonalist Kurt Weill, a man of many personae. His was the acerbic collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, his was the tunesmith of Broadway with some of the great melodies ever composed in America. But Weill was also a student of Schoenberg, and one of the results was the First Symphony.

Jacques Lacombe conducted the one-movement work with as much passion as he could, but frankly, the material, beginning with a Dies Irae melody, didn’t justify the transformation. The first part was a dense domain of earnest but not intriguing music. Later, Weill broke up his orchestra into tinier segments, and these had a certain allure. But Weill was, probably against his will, a composer for the proletariat, and his cerebral venturings seemed empty.

The last 70 minutes was devoted to the teacher of both Weill and Varèse. Ferruccio Busoni, whose musical tastes, inspirations (and obviously teaching methods) were as spacious as his gigantic piano-players hands. As was his ancestry, he could be sternly Teutonic or more rollickingly Italian–and the Piano Concerto was plainly in the latter class.

It was relatively early (1904), but unlike his other early work, he never disowned the piece. Nor was their any reason to do so. It is tuneful, lyrical, a difficult but obviously joyful work for any great artist. True enough, the final men’s chorus smacks of German ersatz mysticism, but the melodies have the joy of Italian opera.

M-A. Hamelin (© Fran Kaufman)

I mentioned the words “great artist”, and they obviously refer to Marc-André Hamelin. It would be easy to say that this concerto is one of his hallmarks, but Mr. Hamelin has so many works which he can call his own that this would limit him.

The work is so huge in conception that one might want a larger orchestra, but Mr. Lacombe knew how to corral his forces as a vigorous partner with Mr. Hamelin. The piece is transparently open, but it still takes huge efforts by both orchestra and conductor to keep it on the knife-edge of interest.

The Men of the Westminster Symphonic Chorus gave their usual rousing best. Yes, Busoni had specified that the chorus for the last movement should sing from offstage, but this is rarely practiced.

(One eminent pianist told me that Busoni had specified the men should be offstage and without clothes, to give vent to a Greek ideal. But this, I learned later, was a joke from the pianist, or, in his case, probably wishful thinking.)

The Concerto was so overwhelming that I had no desire to stay for the encore. As I learned later, Mr. Lacombe finished with the wonderful Fourth Elegy, with its interpolations of Greensleeves. It was probably worth staying for, but I preferred walking down 57th Street with the final choral sounds of the Busoni Concerto vibrating from his personal sky.

Harry Rolnick



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