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Bach Meets The Dynamic Duo

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
04/08/2015 -  & April 9*, 10, 11, 2015
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C Minor for Violin, Oboe and Strings, BWV 1060
Thierry Escaich: Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Orchestra (U.S. premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93

Lisa Batiashvili (Violin), François Leleux (Oboe)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Musical Director/Conductor)

L. Batiashvili, F. Leleux (© New York Philharmonic)

Picture Lisa Batiashvili as teenage uneducated fiddler husking on the streets of Tbilisi for a few kopeks or roaming the mountains of the Georgian Republic, playing dances for festivals in remote hilltop villages. And now picture the world-famous oboist François Leleux, with his huge cortege of aides and admirers, taking a wrong turn after appearing in Moscow, winding up in the Georgia village where this beautiful damsel is fiddling in the central square.

Love strikes the great oboist like lightning over the Caucasus chasms. M. Leleux takes this naive young violin player under his wing, he teaches her seven or eight languages, changes her name from “Mary Jones” to the more exotic Lisa Batiashvili, buys her a Strad, purchases gorgeous clothes, proposes marriage and vows that the couple would reach international glory.

The rest, as they say, is musical history.

Except that this is fantasy. If the team of Batiashvili and Leleux can make such fantastic music as a team, this writer is allowed a little fantasy of his own. Even if it hardly balances the joy of listening to these two together.

The reality is that both artists achieved fame on their own. Ms. Batiashvili is not only an international star, but she is the New York Philharmonic artist-in-residence, and we have been fortunate to hear much of her this year already. Mr. Leleux is making his first appearance with the orchestra this week, but in that rare business of solo oboe, where Heinz Holliger is the only household name. Mr. Leleux has played with the mightiest conductors, from Pierre Boulez to Wolfgang Sawallisch, he conducts several European orchestras himself, and his so rare appearances with his wife was a New York opportunity of a lifetime.

Not that the two of them were alike in any way save individual brilliance. Ms. Batiashvili was demure, her movements were minimal, her violin tone in the Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe couldn’t match, in volume, that of her husband. Mr. Leleux, on the other hand, is the born showman. He weaves and bobs, he wags his oboe the way Artie Shaw used to wave his clarinet, he greeted the audience last night with a buoyant “Helloooo, New York”, and he obviously enjoyed this quadruple opportunity of performing with the Phil, of renewing his friendship with conductor Alan Gilbert, of working with his wife, and of giving a second premiere of a work written especially for them.

Truth be told, the opening Bach, while swinging nicely with Alan Gilbert and a Bach-sized orchestra, belonged mainly to the oboe player. Ms. Batiashvili, sharing the spotlight, chose not to exhibit her notably gorgeous skills, but interwove her notes with the orchestra and–especially–with her husband. This was Bach with a swing. Not especially in the tempos but in the almost improvisational duet. And in the second movement, where oboe and violin wound around each other, it was virtually a love fest.

Yet we hadn’t heard the last of this Concerto when it was done. French organist-composer Thierry Escaich, whose work is rarely performed here at all, has written his own Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Orchestra (NY Philharmonic co-commission). The “Strings” of Bach’s title was augmented to a huge ensemble including a mammoth percussion section and–perhaps in homage to Bach–a piccolo trumpet.

The homage was mainly, though, in a complex retelling of Bach’s original themes. They were turned upside-down, the notes were fleeting, sometimes almost a wisp of a phrase, and in the complicated sonorities, Bach became the basis of something greater.

Yes, sometimes the orchestra had the sonorities of a great organ. But essentially, Mr. Escaich kept his eye on the soloists. Through the haze and fog of the opening, we heard the notes of Bach’s last movement, which quickly was transformed into more orchestral color. The final movement, beginning with a whiplash from the percussion, continued with bits of Bach’s opening, and a repeat of Bach’s own jubilant work.

Yet one remembers most of all the Andante movement. Like the introduction, we had wave upon wave of orchestral sonorities, out of which Mr. Leleux’s oboe and Ms. Batiashvili’s violin had an interplay both with themselves and with the orchestra.

The work had been co-commissioned by Mr. Leleux for good reason. Rare is the modern concerto for oboe which really reaches an audience. This one did. And while we were fortunate to have this terrific (that is the only appropriate adjective) couple perform it, (as well as Mr. Gilbert, who gave the world premiere in Germany), the work should easily go into the repertoire. Obviously the piece is difficult, but Mr. Thierry never makes outrageous demands on his soloists. And yes, we the listeners had to listen carefully (as I hope to listen again), but the maze is not inextricable, and the themes (thank you, Mr. Bach) were always delightful.

The second half had a duration twice that of the two preceding works, but Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony had the paradoxes, mood changes and mordant humor to challenge any conductor.

Allegedly, it is partly a portrait of Josef Stalin, but much of the moodiness–especially the openings of both outer movements–could belong to any of his symphonies.

Mr. Gilbert took these changes of mood literally and liberally. And her had the orchestra–clarinets, percussion, string ensembles–to produce his effects. Turning the opening Moderato into that great crescendo was a subtle and massive effort, while the second movement sung for itself. No excess energy was desired.

The finale is most puzzling. Mr. Gilbert conducted the bleak opening as though he were about to launch into a Bruckner adagio. So when that quirky theme poked through, one had no idea what the hell Shostakovich was thinking. Stalin, though, was the last thing on anybody’s mind.

The conductor and orchestra allowed that music to burst through to the final uproarious ending. Whatever the original puzzles, the Symphony ended with a such a bang that all the cries and whispers were forgotten.

Harry Rolnick



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