Coming Off The Bench
Avery Fisher Hall
Georg Frederic Handel: Overture to Alcina
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Concerto # 1
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 17; Symphony # 40
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Murray Perahia (conductor and piano)
It is the secret wish of all classical performers and fans to someday conduct their own orchestra. Nothing could be more satisfying than to mould a stage full of musicians into a coherent whole expressing one’s own personal impression of the music. Many conductors have been very fine pianists, New York’s modern history sporting three such multitalented gents. Bruno Walter was an eloquent chamber musician, Leonard Bernstein a sophisticated keyboard dabbler and even such an immortal as Sergei Prokofieff was jealous of Dmitri Mitropoulos’ abilities with his fiendishly difficult concerti. In recent years there has been a pronounced trend in pianists emerging from their shells to lead ensembles either from the keyboard or the podium. Andras Schiff recently conducted in Philadelphia and Krystian Zimerman even formed his own orchestra to tour with him in the two Chopin concerti. Others have also got the bug; witness the recent conversions of megastars Itzhak Perlman and Placido Domingo. It is perhaps prudent to develop this lucrative second career, for podium dancers seem to increase their musical longevity far beyond their peak performance years. Although it is rare for one to be equally adept at instrument and leadership (Rostropovich a notable exception), there is no doubt that to be a great communicator the bully pulpit is the optimum vehicle. Now it is Murray Perahia’s turn as he led and performed with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields last evening at Lincoln Center.
This is perhaps the perfect group with which to experiment, as it was originally leaderless but was later guided by Sir Neville Marriner, a member of the violin section who rose to the center of the stage at first somewhat reluctantly. Perahia has moved from the English Chamber Orchestra to this venerable group, recently becoming its principal guest conductor, but only making his rostrum debut in his hometown now after more than thirty years of pianism. As if to assert their independence, the ensemble began the program the way that they began their existence, performing Handel with no one conducting, the group looking to concertmaster Kenneth Sillito for the occasional nod of the head or exaggerated bowing gesture. What was instantly apparent was the marvelous sound of this group, refined but brash, sunny but controlled. They are a true chamber orchestra and as such sounded more full-bodied last season at the smaller 92nd Street Y, but even in the big hall, there tone was impressive.
Unfortunately, their new guest conductor is of the “pardon my back” school of keyboard directors. He places the piano squarely in the center of things and faces his troops throughout. As a Perahia it might be natural to want to see the back of him, but as a performer it is just plain rude. However, as a great pianist, he is full of surprises. Abandoning his former gently aristocratic style, he opted instead for a steely, powerful technique, how I imagine that writer of the now standard cadenzas for these pieces, Beethoven, would have played it. Alas, he also aped Ludwig in his errors of enthusiasm, the usually supremely accurate Mr. Perahia hitting far too many wrong notes for anyone’s taste. Apparently, he is still distracted by the responsibilities of conducting, even though his gestures were remarkably minimalist.
The Bach was a much tighter performance, partly because the old man is a relatively new venture for Perahia and so he relied on the score as he played (giving us the added distraction of staring at the back of the page-turner throughout). What a thrill it is to hear Bach on the modern piano! This intellectually ravenous artist thrilled us all with his Goldbergs earlier this season and this reading was of the same high profile. I would have liked more of a dynamic build in the first movement to increase the tension, but let’s not quibble. This was a spectacular performance.
Finally emerging “just” as a conductor, Perahia led a rather strange traversal of the G Minor. For me, the most sublime moments in Mozart (and perhaps in all of music) are those passages wherein the boy genius re-emerges in the adult composer, when the excitement that the creator personally felt for a melody or phrase gets the better of him and all restraints are abandoned (think of the orchestral ending of Act I of Magic Flute or, if it’s played right, the entire Figaro Overture). Such a section is the opening and reprise of the final movement of the 40th. The melody is at first contained within the bounds of convention and taste, but begins to rock back and forth until it breaks out in glorious sixteenth notes, almost immediately made even more powerful by the unison celli. This movement was excitingly played last evening, although it will take some time for me to appreciate Perahia’s exaggerated accents (emphasized, I think, to compensate for the thinness of the small orchestra). This is still on the job training for this talented man and I wish him well in his new pursuits. After the recent troubles in New York and Philadelphia (and the still current ones in Boston), it has become obvious that there is a decided dearth of conducting talent out there. Perhaps more performers need to step up to fill the void.
Frederick L. Kirshnit