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A Night to Remember

Academy of Music
04/21/2001 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 20
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 1

Angela Hewitt (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Yakov Kreizberg (conductor)

It is easy to forget that Mahler’s Symphony # 1 was labeled “The Titan” and led its early life with that appellation securely on board. It is a significant one, as the composer modeled the structure and the sweeping emotional content of the work on a novel by the wildly romantic author Jean Paul, a favorite of the Viennese intelligentsia in the last quarter of the 19th century. I was reminded of this original title last evening because of two distinct factors. First, the opulent Academy of Music, serving its last full season as the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, displays four statues near its apex, these mythological creatures, like Atlas, appearing to hold up the mural-rich ceiling for eternity. Second, the interpretation of this extensive and expansive musical landscape by the Russian conductor Yakov Kriezberg was in itself titanic.

Oddly enough, the only previous occasion in which I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Kreizberg also began with a performance of the Mozart 20. At that time, with Uchida Mitsuko and the New York Philharmonic, his reading was deeply dark and disturbing. Last evening, the much smaller, period-sized ensemble produced a sunnier sound and I can only attribute the turn of 180 degrees as an aquiescence to the pianist du soir. Ms. Hewitt is a solid technician with a rather idiosyncratic idea of rubato as applied to the classical style and presented some provocative food for thought while traversing this most modern of all of Mozart’s piano scores. She did not, for example, play the now standard Beethoven cadenzas. Additionally, her measured, serious approach reminded more of the eras of Bach or Sweelinck and seemed anachronistic for its own sake. Ultimately her competence did not quite carry the day; the overall feel in this listener one of dissatisfaction (perhaps with insight) and unease with the sense that this style simply doesn’t fit (not to mention a lack of sheer enjoyment).

The Mahler was another matter entirely. What a superb pleasure to hear such a magnificent orchestra led so expertly in a seminal work of proto-twentieth century music! The smallish stage of the Academy could barely hold the gargantuan Mahler band and it seemed that when the trumpets entered after their offstage parts at the opening, there would be no room for them to sit. Kreizberg has an unfailing sense of shades of tempi, so vital to a symphony constantly chafing and changing under the weight and import of its own emotional makeup. Like a great storyteller, he varied his shapes considerably, keeping us constantly vigilant for tiny but important nuances and metamorphoses. The third movement inexorably progressed from the grotesque to the sublime, the double bass and cello sections particularly descriptive of the sloughing journey. This was not just music but narration as well (the aesthetic is very close to the sensibilities of that new art form, the silent film, which would soon burst forth). Not surprisingly, the orchestral sound was spectacular, each individual coloristic effect spun into a glorious whole by a master craftsman.

Now, you must understand something about the Philadelphia Orchestra. In order to preserve their uniquely blended string sound, fiercely preserved since the days of Stokowski, the ensemble always hides their other players behind an impenetrable wall of wood and catgut. The orchestra never uses risers on which the winds or brass players may sit and so, for solid acoustical reasons, the blowers are never seen behind the scrapers. With this as a given, it was doubly exciting when Kreizberg not only allowed the horns to stand at the exciting conclusion of the finale (as per Mahler’s instructions, but often ignored by more “sophisticated” conductors) but the trumpet and trombone players as well. The glint of the spotlights on their shiny brass instruments was a powerful visual, perfectly accenting the intensity of the musical experience. Parenthetically, these players all sprang up together, military band style, rather than the more usual lackadaisical one at a time, each to his pleasure manner of other performances which I have witnessed. A thrilling end to a fabulous performance sent the crowd into hysterics of warm applause.

As a reporter, I would be remiss in not mentioning the progress on the new hall next door. The superstructure is all in place and everything seems to be on target for a December opening. It is a huge complex and will undoubtedly house much more than just a concert hall. Sonically, it is bound to be an improvement over its gorgeous but parabolic predecessor (the acoustics of the Academy are roughly the same as those of Grand Central Station, the sound traveling in patterns with which no one has ever been satisfied). There appear to be big changes for Philadelphia on the verizon.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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