Leos Janacek: String Quartet # 1
Antonin Dvorak: Violin Concerto; Symphony # 7
Kyoko Takezawa (violin)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)
There is a special place for Antonin Dvorak in the hearts of New York music lovers for it was here that the great man emigrated to establish his own conservatory in the 1890’s. The site is now a hospital, but a few years ago the city honored the memory of the school and its creator by erecting a statue of the composer in the little park just across the street. I was both delighted and amazed to see the enormity of the crowd who came to observe the dedication ceremonies, the speaker’s rostrum inhabited by local celebrities of Czech origin, including Milos Forman and the then wife of our mayor, actress Donna Hanover. Also in attendance were the violinist Josef Suk, grandson of the composer of the same name and great-grandson of Dvorak, as well as other direct descendants of the Bohemian master. The concert organized by Suk at a nearby church was overflowing with appreciative fans. The statue is a squat sort of affair (its doppelganger is in the lobby of the Manhattan School of Music) but the composer was contrastingly large in stature. Obviously one can hear the influence of his mentor Brahms in every bar, but I also experience the sunny quality of Handel, the last such optimistic music ever written, since Dvorak died with the century. Two of the finest of this man’s creations, one unjustly neglected and one quite famous, were the meat of the concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s last evening at Carnegie Hall.
The Janacek piece which opened the program is an arrangement of a string quartet which is an adaptation of a short story which is itself inspired by a chamber work of Beethoven (I believe that I spotted Kevin Bacon in the viola section). Its fleshing out for full strings fits perfectly with St. Luke’s season long exploration of “rightsizing”, that is, trying to match the size of the ensemble to the proper performance of the work. This arrangement, however, is somewhat misguided, the composer sacrificing the very crispness which defines the quartet for a flabby opulence. Interestingly, the most affecting passages are those for solo instruments, evoking the cleaner world of the original intense quartet. The ensemble was tight as usual; it was the orchestration that was sloppy.
The violin concerti of both Brahms’mentor and protégé have had odd performance histories. The Schumann remains obscure even now and the Dvorak has never really taken hold (Tovey only discusses the Cello Concerto). American reviews from the 1950’s are universally negative, consigning this beautiful work, championed by Dmitri Mitropoulos and others, to the fringes of the second tier. Now it is to be heard twice in the span of one month here in New York (Sarah Chang will play it with the LSO) and we all have the opportunity to enjoy its richness for ourselves. It is probably not ideal for the advocacy of this piece that it be performed by Kyoko Takezawa, a violinist of superb dexterity but virtually no singing, musical tone. Hers is a very uninteresting and colorless approach and her collaboration with this smaller performing unit left me wanting much, much more. It is strange that a fiddler with so much vibrato can still sound so flatline, but this is undoubtedly her personal aesthetic; she would be a more suitable partner for sometime St. Luke’s conductor Roger Norrington. They could wallow together in their shared unemotional deconstructions, but for Dvorak this is simply wrongheaded.
The 7th is a wonderfully full-bodied work, filled with genuine warmth and fellow feeling. An ideal performance, like those of Szell, emphasizes the large and mellow sound. St. Luke’s, for all of its excellence of execution, is simply too small of a band to deliver this total effect. Half the size of a full symphony orchestra, they make up for their smallness with a great deal of heart (and impressive musical values), but for a big boned and zaftig piece like this, six celli simply won’t do. The performance was eerily like that statue, just a bit misshapen and diminutive. There is so much great repertoire for a true chamber orchestra (how about the Concerti Grossi of Ernest Bloch?) that perhaps this fine ensemble should eschew the Romantic and concentrate on works that they could make their own. After all, they have the ability to shine in these pieces and should probably revel in their glorious niche rather than aspire to Gargantuan interpretation. As in economics, downsizing can have a decided down side.
Frederick L. Kirshnit