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Ms. Shahan Condemns

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/22/2008 -  
Peter Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet – Symphony No. 1 (Winter Daydreams)
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah)

Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor).

Tchaikovsky and Bernstein wrote their first symphonies in their mid-20s, but both were so different in conception and form that, even disregarding the 80-year difference between the writing, one can almost glimpse their individual personalities. When the Philadelphia Orchestra essayed both symphonies under the energetic baton of Christoph Eschenbach, last night, the Carnegie Hall audience could have glimpsed some revelatory visions.

Tchaikovsky tried the classical form to paint a picture of Russian winter. The mood employed at least one Russian tune, a glittering Winter Palace-style waltz and a majestic finale. The result is charming, melodic, with a bit of “filling”, but almost ingenuously amiable.
Bernstein, whose views of Judaism were secular and mystical, sexually vehement yet with a moral undertone, could never paint a literal portrait of his religion like Ernest Bloch. It was more like that converted secular Jew, Gustav Mahler, with mood swings, transmuted quotations, and sometimes cryptic gestures for communication.
Were the first horn notes like a New Year shofar? Did he (as a rabbinical friend once pointed out) use Hebrew chants as the basis for all three movements? Were his sharp orchestral notes like slapdash Jackson Pollack drippings, or did he have a liturgical meaning for everything?
We might never know the answers. But one answer — certainly the most remarkable of the night — was the singing of Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham. While I have heard the Jeremiah Symphony several times, never ever have I heard the solo part “sung” like this.

The solo can be almost thankless for most singers, since the Hebrew words are part of the orchestral covering, and ever-melodic Bernstein does not even hint at a song. But Ms. Shahan never tried to sing. The verses were a torrent of jeremiads, and she made no pretense of making them pretty. She chanted and scolded, she obsecrated with her body, she doomed us. During the Hebrew for Judah: "Finding no rest…her pursuers overtaking her within the narrow passes," her voice became guttural, ugly, sharp. Intonation perfect, of course, she denounced and accused.
Her power was such that, despite the music, some of us looked around to find some sinners that needed a good whuppin’.

While the orchestra shimmered for the Bernstein, one could not say the same for the opening Romeo and Juliet. The Philadelphia is a fine ensemble, and the strings scurried along faultlessly in the whizzing moments. But there was no way Eschenbach could avoid certain wheezing accordion-like string sections.

Finishing with the winter portrait of the First Symphony was more interesting. The melodies were lovely, the long horn solo in the second movement was touching, and the scherzo was a bit of fun. But Eschenbach does like his big, big moments, and he had them by the bucketful in the finale. This was Tchaikovsky without misgivings, without Fate, the jingoistic Tchaikovsky of the Military Academy. Eschenbach propelled it with obscene joy. With the final chords, one realized that you could graft this movement in toto on the 1812 Overture, and nobody would be the wiser.

Tchaikovsky later composed deeper, more tragic, more chimerical symphonies, as he fought his own jeremiads and demons, but he rarely made such an uninhibited orchestral splash.

Harry Rolnick



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