News From the New World
Avery Fisher Hall
Mikhail Glinka: Russlan and Ludmilla Overture
Alexander Glazunov: Violin Concerto
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony # 9
New York Philharmonic
David Zinman (conductor)
Salieri: “…you didn’t even give them a good bang at the end of songs, to let them know when to clap.”
Mozart: “…maybe you should give me some lessons in that.”
from the Milos Forman film “Amadeus”
The most inane article on music that I have ever read (and this is really saying something, considering how much Richard Taruskin I have encountered over the years) was published in my hometown newspaper about ten years ago. The thesis of the piece was how deficient the ”New World” Symphony was because its ending was so disappointingly quiet. Amazingly enough, the writer had purported to interview several competent conductors who shared the opinion that the entire experience was ruined by a feminine conclusion which left their audiences restless and confused. What was, of course, missing in this sophistry was the poetic meaning of this earcatching final stroke, meant to be provocative for the Carnegie Hall crowd at the most famous premiere in the history of American music. When Anton Seidl led the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society in the first performance of the work with the composer in attendance in December, 1893, the event rivaled the historic appearance of Tchaikovsky to open the hall just two years before. Dvorak was the prize catch of the Americans, at least until Mahler took over the reins at Carnegie in the next decade (and these two remain the most notable émigrés, since Wagner abandoned his plans to move to Minnesota in the 1870’s).
Actually, there is a grain of truth in the criticism. Recently I attended a performance of the Symphony # 9 of Bruckner which received no applause even after Kurt Masur had let his arms fall to his side, simply because the piece ends softly. The Austrian master has the best excuse for composing in this manner, as he died before he could write one of his patented loud and boisterous finales (this is not the time to discuss that Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Dvorak and Vaughn Williams all died after their ninth symphonies). I also had the experience of witnessing Wolfgang Sawallisch turn to a Carnegie audience and shout that it was all over when the ending of the Symphony # 7 of Sibelius caught them off their guard. The opposite is also possible. Not long ago, I watched many patrons leave Avery Fisher after a particularly spirited rendition of the third movement of the ”Pathetique” and, at the same hall, observed David Robertson having to caution the applauding patrons that a performance of the ”Turangalila” “…ain’t over yet, folks”! But, in the case of the Dvorak, no other ending could be more glorious. It is his aural image of the opening of a flower, meant to convey, as Varese would later do in his Ameriques, the unique spirit of limitless possibilities that was and is this new land. This was the Czech educator’s message to American composers in one lovely metaphor: never be afraid to express what you feel in your own personal voice.
This presentation by the New York Philharmonic occurred during the period when Maestro Masur is out on extended sick leave, having one of his organs replaced (the press release sent to my home, with not even a whisper of irony, states that it is not, in fact, his heart). Different guest conductors are filling in and this night it was David Zinman’s turn. In his capable hands, this was a kinder and gentler new world, the famous Largo, possibly, but perhaps apocryphally, conducted by the composer as an encore that first fateful night, was this evening more of a comforting Brahmsian Andante. Zinman painted in soft tones throughout, subduing the brass while encouraging excellent wind playing and layering a fine blending of strings over the top. The piece is filled with rhythmic invention, many of the permutations inspired by Dvorak’s study of Native American chant (in fact, it was one brave’s overzealous pursuit of her teenaged daughter which caused Madame Dvorak to curtail the family’s sojourn in Iowa) and the clean lines of the guest conductor allowed crisp enunciation of these joyous subtleties. For me, it is not the “goin’ home” motif which most tugs at the heart (it is consistently amazing how Dvorak invents authentic sounding folk melodies which are invariably composed not appropriated) but rather the last oboe subject of the second movement, a poignant image of a child running free even within the atmosphere of bondage. In this performance, the precise wind work led to a particularly satisfying rendition of this crucial section.
A rousing read of the Russlan and Ludmilla opened this fine program, the spirited second subject especially hearty in the viola section. As a teenager, Midori dazzled in all of the finger-breaking showstoppers so that now, at 30, she is free to concentrate rather on intellectual artistry. Hers is an extremely thoughtful conception of the Glazunov, filled with dark but repressed passions. This has always been a problem work for me, but hearing it so deeply explored brought its brand of hidden sexuality much closer to the surface. It is always an enlightening experience to hear this mature artist and it is perhaps even more instructive to experience her take on lesser-known works not at the masterpiece level. All in all, a fine way to ring out the old. For those of us who inhabit the new world, 2002 will have to be a better year.
Frederick L. Kirshnit