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New York
Carnegie Hall
10/05/1999 -  
Maurice Ravel: Pavanne Pour Une Infante Defunte; Valses Nobles et Sentimentales
Bela Bartok: Violin Concerto #2
Zoltan Kodaly: Suite from Hary Janos

Gil Shaham (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

In this remarkable season of all twentieth century masterworks the Philadelphia Orchestra is trying to connect each program to its own illustrious centennial. Apparently the link last evening was the influence of their longtime music director Eugene Ormandy. Judging from the quantity of graybeards in this fine ensemble there are still a large number of ex-Ormandy players populating the sections of the current orchestra roster. Ormandy, along with Fritz Reiner and Antal Dorati, brought the Hungarian spirit of music making to the United States in the middle of the first half of the century and influenced significantly the elan vital of this most satisfying of American performing symphonic assemblages. The two featured works of the evening were rousingly barbaric versions of Magyar peasant dance music only thinly veiled as "classical" standards.

As if to remind us from the first note of the amazingly quality of their patented blended sound, the Philadelphians chose their gorgeous interpretation of the Ravel Pavanne, so stunningly beautiful from its inception that there was no doubt as to the supremacy of this group for sheer sound quality. Having just heard this piece last week at the Academy of Music, I was immediately struck by the warmth of Carnegie Hall’s acoustics, where no aural adjustment or compromise need be made to fully appreciate the totality of the listening experience. The strings of this orchestra are still under the Stokowskian influence that created the "Philadelphia sound" and although the players are different, the effect is magically unchanged.

Gil Shaham has changed somewhat his reading of the Bartok Concerto #2. Last year with the New York Philharmonic he emphasized the beauty of the piece, making it sound more like the Berg and less like the wild music of the Transylvanian Alps that Bartok loved so dearly. This year he is much more of the athlete, pacing like a caged lion while playing and reminding one of a Chagall fiddler unable to rest even when he is silent. The resultingly muscular performance was quite impressive, although he still has a ways to go to compete with the likes of Kyung-Wha Chung in this category. He is still young and like a rookie sports prospect needs to develop more technique if he is going to excel in the angular arena that is Bartok violin music. The orchestra handled the minor seconds and augmented fourths (I have a musician friend who calls them "demented fourths") with an air of beauty and grace unusual for this piece but highly effective. The percussion section was particularly primitive in its approach and reminded me of Bartok’s own personal style of pianism.

After a satisfying performance of the Ravel waltzes, Sawallisch led his troops in the surprise of the evening, an exceptionally spirited rendering of the Kodaly orchestral suite gleaned from the peasant singspiel Hary Janos and actually re-composed by the Hungarian super-pedant after it became obvious to him that no non-Hungarian would ever appreciate the original theatre piece. The exotic presence of the cimbalom (a small Hungarian piano with the top removed and the strings struck by mallets) added just the right touch of Orientalism and I was amazed at how much this music sounds like the folk music of Uzbekistan, both in melody and in raw power. Kodaly has always been a "near miss" composer for me, but a performance this energetic makes me want to rethink his entire output. Perhaps I have just heard a number of lackluster versions in the past. The Philadelphia reading was so lively that the crowd erupted into gales of applause before the end of the piece as the whirling dance rhythms carried us all away to the fantasy world of the exaggerating tall-tale teller.

The search for a new conductor goes on apace in Philadelphia. One rumor has James Levine taking over the helm and it is certainly true that the board is looking hard for a top headliner to try and restore some of the glory and luster to this fine ensemble (and to resuscitate modest ticket sales). Maestro Sawallisch has always had impeccable credentials, but he has not spent the time in the city that he would need to in order to bring this great orchestra up to the next level. With Simon Rattle now out of the picture, the race is on for the remaining few superstars. Cleveland, Boston, New York and Los Angeles are all looking at the same time and so the next few years will be very exciting. Whomever is chosen in Philadelphia will inherit the best of the lot and expectations will be extremely high.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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