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Of Egmont and Elephants

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
02/27/2009 -  
“War And Pieces”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to “Egmont”, arranged by Jan Müller-Wieland
Igor Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale)

Klaus Maria Brandauer (Narrator), Daniel Hope (Violin), Annika Hope (Double-bass), Jose Franch-Ballester (Clarinet), Peter Kolkay (Bassoon), Kevin Cobb (Cornet), Deman Austin (Trombone), Hans-Kristian Kjos Sǿrensen (Percussion), Christian Wesskircher (Technical Director)
Presented by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

(© Harry Rolnick)

The most staggering arrangement of Beethoven I ever heard was the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, performed in north Thailand by the Lampang Junior High School Marching Band accompanied by eight elephants who banged merrily away on cue at a series of drums, cymbals, xylophones and vibrating sheets of metal.

Nothing could beat that (and I still have the recording). But the first work last night for a concert called “War And Pieces” came close to the Thai extravaganza. Composer Jan Müller-Wieland was given the task of arranging Beethoven’s overture to Goethe’s play Egmont for the same instruments that would be used later for Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

Frankly, it would have been easier to just let the elephants stamp it out, but Mr. Müller-Wieland was not only game for the task, but added some Stravinsky-ish fillips to the score. The result was a success only that it could be done at all. But it seems doubtful that one will ever hear Egmont the same way ever again.

The notes were identical, but the trombone and clarinet added some glissandi and a few blues riffs. The great crescendos so studiously penned by Herr Ludwig were transformed into percussion solos by the astonishing Hans-Kristian Kjos Sǿrensen. Daniel Hope had the Augean task of playing the whole string section on his single violin. And the Allegro con brio climax—one of the most impressive of any Beethoven overture—was left to the other instruments to play along.

The result had that original Thai-elephant atmosphere of improvisational enthusiasm, but it also embraced the sickliness of a Sicilian funeral and the tinny circus music of La Strada.

Fortunately, that (hopefully) conscious travesty and the cutesy titular pun (“War and Pieces”) were the only questionable moments in one of the Alice Tully Hall exhibition concerts for the opening week.

They couldn’t have had a better stage and better players for Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Story, a work with no predecessors and no followers. The Swiss poet Charles Ramuz arranged a Russian folktale where the Devil exchanges a magical book with a soldier, getting his violin in return, and that leads to comedy and the same kind of ersatz-tragic ending as Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Far more interesting was Stravinsky’s orchestration. Never having heard a single note of jazz live, he studied ragtime sheet music and arranged a sort of dance band minus saxophone. (The bassoon took its part). A narrator was added, some dancers performed the story, and it broke a particular mould which was never put together again.

Dancers were missing here, but the faux-dance band looked quite at home on the intimate Alice Tully stage. The difference being that not a single one of the seven players was anything but an extreme virtuoso. In fact, I have never heard an ensemble so pointedly, colorfully, rhythmically ready to take on any challenge.

Every genre of music was used here, and violinist Daniel Hope with percussionist Kjos Sǿrensen played the longish tango together like born for the rhythms. (Mr. Hope also injected the only real Russian soul into his instrument.) The cornet, brass and trombone were spot on point with Stravinsky’s version of jazz, and Annika Hope, on double-bass achieved a deep-down sorcery.

No conductor was needed for such a group, but the best-known : “name”, Klaus Maria Brandauer, was electrifying. His energy was controlled (hands in pocket, kind of a slouch), but it could shout out at times, whisper, he could bounce around the stage or simply hold still and let the vibrations pass from him to the band.

Hs was a monumental performance which raged, sighed, and importuned, and whose control, like that of the septet, gave a performance both mesmerizing and memorable.

Harry Rolnick



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