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Double Steel

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/21/2001 -  03/22/01
Michael Hersch: from Ashes of Memory
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto
Jean Sibelius: Symphony # 2
Giovanni Gabrielli: Sonata XVIII
Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Richard Strauss: Serenade for 13 Winds
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, Suite # 2

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Pittsburgh Symphony
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

Day One: What Might Have Been

Mariss Jansons will always be an interesting footnote in New York musical history. One of two announced finalists for the post of music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was nosed out by a high profile outsider, Lorin Maazel, when the maverick maestro won the undying love of the orchestra’s personnel by canceling a rehearsal of the Bruckner 8, stating that the players already knew their parts (I was at that concert and this was probably a wise decision by Mr. Maazel, as it would have taken a lot more than one extra rehearsal to accomplish even a competent performance). The recalcitrant orchestra had complained that Jansons, a native of Latvia, was “patronizing” in comparison by actually making them play phrases from the Symphonie fantastique during his preliminary sessions. So this master orchestra builder will be denied his opportunity at Lincoln Center but, in a system as incestuous as the lines of succession of the Julian house, he stepped in to become the new music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony when Maazel resigned to make himself available for the Gotham invitation. To demonstrate to us all what we were missing, Jansons brought his highly disciplined Pittsburgh Symphony to Carnegie Hall for two evenings and some very varied musical adventures.

There is something to be said for old fashioned programming. Although it is patently unfair to judge a work based only on one movement, the Hersch excerpt did serve structurally as an overture for the first event. Derivative, commonplace and cynically manipulative like a Spielberg film (“okay, now everybody feel sad!”), this bleeding chunk was nonetheless presented with a great deal of investment and a rich, resonantly deep sense of timbre. With the obligatory opportunity for the young composer to take a bow from the stage of Carnegie Hall out of the way, the real music began.

I have had the privilege of hearing Leif Ove Andsnes before and have found him to be mature beyond his years. Powerful and poetic by turns, he dazzled in the Schumann, extremely muscular in the prolonged chordal runs, sensitively adroit in its melodic brilliance, delicately expressing the wit of its arpeggios. Mr. Jansons is very familiar with this Norwegian’s style (it is the Oslo Philharmonic that he is giving up to take over Bavarian Radio) and matched him stroke for stroke. The sound of the orchestra was extraordinary, the horn and piano combination exquisite. Mr. Andsnes seemed in complete control and I predict a fine future for him. Certainly his choice of partners speaks to his innate sense of musicianship.

It was obvious from the beginning that the Sibelius is a work close to the Maestro’s Baltic heart. The rude and rough sound that he was able to coax from this fine ensemble was stunningly appropriate for the opening movement, so evocative of the Northern forests. Engineering an extremely solid grounding by augmenting the double bass section to nine hard working individuals (who blended perfectly with the stentorian tuba), Jansons emphasized the primitive nature of his subject. The low pizzicato prelude to the second movement was as mysteriously ancient as the Kalevala itself. Employing some preternatural sorcery, the conductor transformed his strings from the growling, hungry horde of the first section to a silken guild of tapestry weavers in the second, the swelling of the violins compelling, the melodic line of the celli ravishing. This is the orchestra that Bernstein needed for his Sibelius when he attempted to spin those strands of straw into gold in the early ‘60’s. The pacing and structuring of the finale was especially impressive. The swirling undercurrent painstakingly constructed, the searing high register held in check at first but then allowed to flower in a naturally undisturbed manner. The last 50 measures were simply glorious, and when Jansons spread his hands wide for the sumptuous conclusion he appeared to be experiencing his own apotheosis like the Nordic warriors of legend so dear to this singular composer’s heart (comparing the sources for Sibelius with those of Wagner suggests that this music simply was destined to emerge from its magical cocoon). This was a moment to cherish: leader and orchestra at the height of their powers.

Day Two: The Sum of Its Parts

An experienced craftsman knows that the finished product is the result of much blending of individual elements and so it is with fine orchestras. Starting with strong section leaders, a good orchestra builder will not compromise his standards of hiring, work ethic or aesthetics regardless of interference from labor unions, personnel management or political correctness. Some years ago Sir George Solti had to face the unenviable task of firing several elderly string players who had simply atrophied at their desks. The hue and cry from the Chicago community was strident, but Solti stuck to his guns and dismissed the members even under the threat of litigation. He knew that he could never preserve the great CSO sound if he bent under the pressure. Occupying the podium is hardly an easy path to critical or public acclaim. Jansons’ secret has been an unwavering mission to produce the finest product in the history of either Heinz or Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Halls and his present forces recall the golden age of William Steinberg. So why not showcase his glorious sections in music designed to feature each in turn?

When I first walked into Saint Mark’s I thought of the zen proverb that it is not the vessel that we craft but rather the emptiness inside. The space itself is overwhelming. Andrea Gabrielli certainly thought so and brought his nephew Giovanni in to play the second organ which was positioned opposite to his in a separate loft. The result was vitally important to the history of Western music. Jansons emphasized the antiphonal nature of this brass chorale by positioning two sets of musicians in the Carnegie rafters on opposite sides of the hall and having them blend through the synaptic space with a quintet of musicians onstage. The clarity of the tones was spectacular, the music itself noble and exciting.

The quality most apparent in the Bartok was precision. This is a difficult score for any ensemble to perform, the demands of the divided string parts straining the abilities of most sections to enunciate clearly. The Pittsburgh strings were up to the task, performing the thorny second movement, with its Machiavellian combination of syncopation and downbeat in the same sections often frustrating lesser ears endeavoring to seem in perfect rhythmic coordination. Again the antiphonal was key, the double basses split on both sides of the stage, the interplay between low second violins and high firsts revelatory. Maestro even had the two sides of the platform stand up separately during the hearty applause. What was truly amazing was the playing of this highly complex music in the sound of a string quintet, the individual members so in touch with their mates as to give the illusion of one centered instrument per part. The oft misplayed ending, with its tricky elongated note followed immediately by a shivering plunge of raveled rhythm, was executed flawlessly. This was a wonderfully tight performance.

Arguably, however, the best section of this championship team is its winds. After intermission, the stage was set up for the full orchestra to perform the Ravel, but Jansons kept his small forces in their chairs at the back, visually reinforcing the image of the night’s programming. His conducting to 75 empty chairs seemed surreal at first but was a point well taken. In the rough-hewn Stravinsky the flutes were just a tad rushed, creating an unusual but uncalled for echo effect, but overall the sonority was impressively chilly and distinct. The Strauss was gorgeous, inspired by the solo oboe of Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, the balance delicate but precise, the four horns not dominating but underlining. Whatever instrument you might fancy, this night there was something for everyone. It all came together marvelously in the Ravel. That unique sound of flute, strings and harp was illumined by moonlight close to the water’s surface. The swelling of the violins was memorable, the danse generale tremendously thrilling, as thoughts of Pierre Monteux filled my head and heart.

So why doesn’t everyone recognize the excellence of the Pittsburgh Symphony? Although they have always been appreciated by cognoscenti they are not considered by the average classical devotee as in the upper echelon, not part of the “big five” and all that. One problem is that rankings, at least in the public mind, are strangely set in stone, not elastic as they should be. Orchestras are living organisms and change with the health and personalities of their music directors. The BSO, for example, has slipped in recent years, the disarray surrounding the dismissal of Seiji Ozawa hurting the musical product. The New York Philharmonic has improved appreciably under Kurt Masur, but they are light years away from the dedication and commitment exhibited in Pittsburgh. Don’t look back, Cleveland and Chicago; someone may be gaining on you.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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