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Make Room for Tomorrow

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
09/22/1999 -  
Richard Strauss: String Sextet from Capriccio
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet

Jon Manasse (clarinet)
Concertante Chamber Players

After experiencing the stark contrast the previous night at the 92nd St. Y of youthful energy on stage and venerable wisdom in the ancient audience, it was refreshing to immediately immerse oneself in a youthful performance of some wonderful chamber music where both the performers and the audience were of similar generations. Merkin Concert Hall is a great venue for promising musicians and I have often been one of the supportive family members and friends who populate the cheap seats. Last night we were treated to a fine performance of three chamber masterpieces played, if not transcendentally, at least lovingly by musicians who are on their way to a high level of performance practice.

The String Sextet of Strauss was excerpted from the opera Capriccio by the composer as a stand-alone piece, but suffers from the lack of magical effect that positions it as one of the most unusual introductions in the rich history of musical theatre when it is ripped away from the stage work. It is positively shocking to settle in at the opera and experience the darkening of the house followed by this quiet study in delicate sonority. It seems impossible that a fully staged work will follow, but it does in this most Viennese of works about artifice and appearance (compare Kubrickís Eyes Wide Shut). As a chamber piece the work can be somewhat thin and the playing of the young ensemble was spotty and not close to the gorgeous mark that is this essayís bullís-eye.

The crowd came to hear the clarinet music and it was not disappointed. Jon Manasse is principal of the New York Chamber Symphony and in this relaxed setting (the young and the tieless) he shone in the two mightiest of clarinet quintets. In the Mozart there appeared to be a gap between the musicality of the string quartet and that of the soloist. There were really two reasons for this. Firstly, Mozart is one of the most difficult composers to perform because his music is so easy to play at first sight. The lack of struggle to hit the notes often seduces the young performer into a state of overconfidence, even disdainful superiority, and the result is that the real music never actually emerges. Vladimir Horowitz didnít seriously play Mozart until he was in his mid-seventies. By then he was able to deal with the simplicity artistically and produce music of the most sublime nature. The Concertante Players are in need of much coaching before they will be ready to reproduce the true wonder of this spiritual music. There was also a screeching sound from the two violins which contrasted glaringly with the warm tone of Mr. Manasse. However, the spirit of the "bouncy" sections came through quite well, usually a difficult task for an inexperienced group.

Repositioning goes a long way in a chamber performance and the quintet of Brahms was a much finer performance with a truly excellent sound. The first violinist from the Mozart moved over to the second chair and showed that he was much more at home with the lower register. The resulting burnished string sound matched Mr. Manasse perfectly and the performance went off flawlessly. The much more difficult Brahms score forced the musicians to concentrate on their technique and this led to a much more serious and moving performance (this is a common phenomenon and not just among the young). Mr. Manasse possesses a very rich, full-bodied tone and solved the many intonation problems inherent in the Brahms (it is particularly difficult to blend the clarinet in A with the sonority of the viola) with a professionalism far beyond his years. It was easy to close oneís eyes and imagine a much more seasoned group on the stage for this amazing piece of valedictory music. I find the last years of Brahms to be my own personal favorite period and I will certainly keep my ear out for future Manasse performances of the Clarinet Trio and the two Sonatas. I expect great things from this lad.

It was a good tonic for my ruminations on the graying of classical America to see such a young crowd at Merkin. The price of tickets is much less there but the quality remains high. I fluctuate manically on this issue. Is there indeed a future for classical music in America? I think that there is and find from personal experience that if one introduces a card-carrying Generation X member to Mozart or Mahler, Berlioz or Wagner, Brahms or Bartok, then they will be very receptive to the musicís inherent beauty and power. The problem seems to be a total lack of awareness that this great art form even exists. The shameful state of American education in general is a major part of the root cause and the snowballing trend in TV and radio is appalling in its negation of the great classical tradition. But I try my best to influence the next wave of audience members and the process is very personally rewarding for me as well.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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