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Kent Nagano’s Theory of Evolution

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/14/2011 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonias for Solo Keyboard 1-5, 8-9, 11-12 & 15
Giovanni Gabrielli: Symphoniae Sacrae for Brass
Anton Webern: Symphony, Opus 21
Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies for Wind Instruments (1923 version)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Smphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67

Angela Hewitt (Pianist)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (Music Director/Conductor)

K. Nagano, A.Hewitt (© Jennifer Taylor)

Kent Nagano is often the iconoclast. But last night, for his concert at Carnegie Hall, his unconventionality reached a breaking point.

The title of the concert was “The Evolution of the Symphony”. Yet his first half didn’t have a single symphony (in the usual sense). And even accepting a certain eccentricity in programming, the four composers were smooshed into one dish like an intellectual pot-pie.

Yes, each piece had a variation of the word symphony. But a Gabrielli “Sacred Symphony” is a religious anthem, Stravinsky’s “Symphonies” were specifically not a group of symphonies, Bach’s “Sinfonias” could have equally been “inventions.” As to Webern’s one 10-minute Symphony…that defies description.
Plus, not a single work used the Orchestra Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) in toto, each symphony written for a specific consort.

True, these definitions could be mere sophistries. The problem was that Mr. Nagano wanted this first half to be a single tapestry. Thus we were forbade applause between each work. Thus Mr Nagano and his wonderful OSM didn’t allow breathing room. And thus, those who needed that breathing room for the ethereal Webern Symphony were still ruminating on the last chords of Angela Hewitt’s solo keyboard piece.

Even more essential, the OSM, over the past decades, has been transformed into such an galvanizing ensemble that their truly luscious sound got lost in the mixture.

No brass could be sharper than in the opening antiphonal Gabrielli duo. Carnegie Hall is not Venice’s St. Mark’s, but they did signal that we were about to hear some excellent music.

That excellence was not quite transferred to Angela Hewitt, who usually plays Bach on the piano with more “aliveness” than any living pianist. But her ten “sinfonias” were shoveled in piecemeal between other music. In the livelier inventions, Ms. Hewitt lacked her usual pungency, she played the three-part works with a cold technical prowess, which was hardly inspired. In her slower works, like the 12th in A Minor, one heard not only skill but an introspective working out which gave backbone to the Bach.

Webern’s Symphony really does need its own preceding space, without the final resonance of a Steinway. The usual description is its “purity”, but the Symphony has its own logic. The first movement, like the Gabrielli and some of the Bach, is simply a series of canons, folding in themselves, a kind of cosmic repetition. Mr. Nagano didn’t need to coax this out of the OSM. Each phrase was clear, clean and expressive.

The “Variations” movement is a pulverization of the 12-tone row, with instrumental colors as fascinating as a Jackson Pollock. Such phrases have their own innner logic, and here, the phrases were floating around like fractal constellations.

The Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments had the OSM finesse. But ironically, next to the cloud-like measures of the Webern Symphony, its static dissonant lines seemed petrified, lifeless

No excuses, no apologia, no verbal riddles were needed for the second half. This was not only a symphony symphony, but perhaps the symphony symphony.

The orchestral forces were re-configured for Beethoven’s Fifth, double-basses placed just to the left of the violins, far from the cellos, giving them all the solo space they needed in the third movement. And with his consistently just-faster-than-average tempos, Mr. Nagano gave an energy and a cohesion to the Beethoven that literally beat the hell out of the experimental cohesion of the first half.

Those who stayed after the applause were given two extra treats that were definitely not “the evolution of the symphony.” The excerpt from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande was played with a velvet touch. And when Kent Nagano and the OSM played Berlioz’s overture to Le Corsaire, it set Carnegie Hall bursting at the seams.

Of course the OSM partly made its reputation with its past conductor Charles Dutoit and his stunning Berlioz. But Kent Nagano–dare I say “consciously”?–outgunned Mr. Dutoit with whirling strings, massive brass chorales and electrifyingly spine-tingling sounds.

Harry Rolnick



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