Botched Organ Transplant
Avery Fisher Hall
James MacMillan: The World's Ransoming (U.S. Premiere)
Anton Bruckner: Symphony #9
Thomas Stacy (English Horn)
New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
All I knew about James MacMillan was that he was the composer of that percussion piece that Evelyn Glennie recorded a few years ago. I was pleasantly surprised to attend the U.S. premiere of a sensitive pastorale work for English horn and orchestra obviously loved by its warm-toned soloist, a man forging a unique career with an unusual instrument. The World's Ransoming put me in mind of Vaughn Williams and the whole English movement that grew out of A. E. Housman's reactions to the Boer and Great Wars. Listening to MacMillan during the depths of the Balkan insanity shows how little we have advanced. In the best Holst/Gurney tradition, the paean to peace alternated rustic moods, complete with cowbells, with darker clouds of repressed wrath culminating in non-metallic hammerblows ala Mahler's Sixth. The English horn, sounding like the piffaro of ancient Italian pastorale and used structurally in the same manner as the solo trumpet from Vaughn Williams' Pastorale Symphony, sang out its plangent melodies eloquently in this specialist's hands. Sir Colin and the audience also seemed to be in the proper mood to appreciate this interesting piece of nostalgia. Unfortunately, the composer himself was in attendance to see the deplorable behavior of the orchestra, as purely a third of the musicians sat with bored or irritated looks on their faces, several had their chins resting on their hands and (I don't think that on the Internet I can tell you what I really think of these people) more than a few had their fingers in their ears.
It has been an arduous season for us Brucknerites in New York. Here it is almost May and we are hearing the first work of the Austrian master in town all season (the Philharmonic is going to play the Fifth in a few weeks, ostensibly with Franz Welser-Moest, but I'll believe that when I hear it). It has been like the dark, pre-Walter days of the 1920's and '30's in New York, when a single Bruckner performance was an event inspiring several articles in the annals of the music history of the time. What a pity that our wait was ended by this dreadful performance of one of the truly inspirational and spiritual texts of the last five hundred years!
Sir Colin has adopted an extremely slow conception for this piece and this would be fine, even adventurous under other circumstances. For this noble experiment, however, there is no orchestra on earth less qualified that the New York Philharmonic. In order to make this tempo work, as Celibadache showed in Munich, the performers must have at their fingertips a fine, flowing legato line and an exceptional sense of instrumental interaction. Instead we were subjected to muffed entrances, uncoordinated ensemble playing, solos actually appearing in the wrong spot, chords disintegrating into dissonant threads, and laughable phrasing of the slowed down melodic material. The string sound, never acceptable in this group, was particularly tinny throughout, making the snail's tempo simply irritating. Of course, this was Bruckner's Ninth, so there were moments of extreme profundity and beauty and I began to experience the performance on two distinct levels. There was the sublime music and there was also this third rate interpretation (I had a similar experience at a bad student performance of the Eighth many years ago). The sense of the orchestra sounding like Bruckner's beloved organ was only conveyed by the bizarre clash of overtones created by the many miscues of this poor execution and yet there were moments, like the building of the magnificently dissonant final brass chord, where the slow tempo made the sense of Gothic architecture positively thrilling and spoke volumes for the attempt to explore this rich music at a ritardando pace.
The sloth of the second movement, wherein all of the raw power was lost, was just silly. The third movement, normally the slow one, fared a little better because Davis did not alter the tempo (although this begged the question of his whole shaping of the symphony) and was certainly the highlight of the evening. But even here the ugly string sound was particularly noticeable (these people should probably not play Bruckner at all), the transitions were non-existent, replaced by fitful stoppings and startings (my copy of the score does not include the fifteen grand pauses that Sir Colin employed), and the lush melodies never flowered in that deeply personal way that the organist from Linz intended. The normally solid Philharmonic brass produced many clunkers this evening (including the totally butchered Wagner tuba solo in the first movement), but did rally to perform a lovely chorale at the close and held the final note sensitively during the pizzicato finish of the piece, although they were cut off before they had the opportunity to let their chord drift into the void. It was our turn to put our fingers in our ears, but we were too mature to do so.
Frederick L. Kirshnit