Hope Springs Eternal
Avery Fisher Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 14
Elena Prokina (soprano)
Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
New York Philharmonic
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)
This is the week that the schedule comes out for the 2000-2001 season of the New York Philharmonic. A cursory reading promises a very exciting year, more interesting in scope than either that of Carnegie Hall or the visiting orchestra series at Lincoln Center. One of the highlights for this critic is a four block series of performances commemorating the fiftieth death anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg and there is also a feast of the classics that would make any listener's ear water. The only caveat is that it is the New York Philharmonic and they have been woefully inconsistent over the years. As if sprucing up for their early marketing effort, this unpredictable band presented a fine evening of music emphasizing the soft and the beautiful, the delicate and the profound.
Midori is a great violinist. Now past her prodigy phase, she has matured into a consummate artist, her conception of the Beethovenian chestnut radically different from any that I have ever heard (the fact that she even has a conception makes her a rarity in the modern soloist community). Uncompromisingly delicate, her traversal of these all too familiar notes (Glenn Gould once described the piece as "a lot of guts and one good tune") never ventured above mezzo forte and the result was a tutorial in Classicism, an object lesson in beautiful line and finely chiseled features. Already established as a wizard of the fingerboard, this doddering old lady of 28 eschewed the virtuosic elements of the concerto in favor of the pursuit of an elusive sublimity, there for the listening with such an intellectual practitioner as our guide. Maestro Wigglesworth kept his orchestral forces in check and supported her rendition professionally. There was virtually never an intonational or dynamic problem and listening to the coloristic approach of a woman who can make the contrast from really quiet to simply soft sound like a major crescendo was absolutely thrilling. True to her ideas, Midori didn't even succumb to the bravada ending, choosing instead a remarkably diaphanous and nimble little spider's web of sound to close this normally bombastic piece. For one of those rare times, I felt that I came away from this concert with a new understanding of an old piece and what more could a concert-goer ever want?
The Shostakovich Symphony # 14 is a difficult hour for any listener. Its harmonic language is complexly dissonant, its subject matter the darkest imaginable. Dynamically it is one of the quietest concert pieces of the 20th century and this prompted the conductor to caution the audience in advance about its penchant for rheumatic noises more fit for the pneumonia ward than the concert hall. The lecture was part of an offensive posture adopted by New York concert halls recently, with many programs beginning with warnings against noise from cell phones and pagers and an overall reaction to the bad behavior so unfortunately common in today's short attention span world. Although we were informed that the silences were an integral part of this music (a common enough phenomenon in virtually all serious pieces) the crowd still uncontrollably loosened their phlegm at every opportunity at the early stages of the performance. Eventually the hall became quieter, however, as more and more patrons left after each of the eleven songs which make up this magnificent essay in anguish. The small orchestra played brilliantly, especially the solo cello accompanying the baritone's lyrical line, and the two singers, both veterans of the Russian operatic stage, were not only in good voice but also emotive as characters within the verses of Apollinaire, Lorca and Rilke. This Slavic duo opted for the all-Russian version of the text and raised our level of understanding with their powerful dramatic abilities and flawless diction. This performance was the equal of the fine effort of the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this season and gives me much hope that next year's wonderful program schedule will magically develop into a delightful series of listening experiences. But it is April as I write these words and I must be mindful that it "…comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers."
Frederick L. Kirshnit