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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
09/23/2000 -  
Felix Mendelssohn:
Overture to Fingal's Cave;Violin Concerto;Overture to Ruy Blas;"Italian" Symphony

Sheryl Staples (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

The music director of the oldest continuously performing orchestra in the New World reached back last evening to his roots as the former music director of the oldest continuously performing orchestra in the Old World and opened a new season with a series highlighting the music of the composer who founded the conservatory in which he matriculated. Kurt Masur led the 13, 247th concert of the New York Philharmonic as a curtain raiser to the Mendelssohn Festival and displayed to the full house some recent results in the process which he promised to initiate when appointed to the post in the early 1990ís. Although it has been slow going, Masur has improved the sound of the orchestra through patient discipline and judicious hiring. Last evening marked the debut of new principal flautist Robert Langevin who recently jumped ship from the very impressive winds of the Pittsburgh Symphony and who may be a stalking horse for the music director there, Mariss Janssons, who has become a front-runner for the Philharmonic position now that the courting of Riccardo Muti is officially defunct. There were quite a few fresh new faces in the ensemble and perhaps this bodes well as this orchestra is desperately in need of a major attitude adjustment if it is ever to progress into the ranks of the first tier of American performing bodies.

Masurís credentials for conducting Mendelssohn are impeccable. Not only did he attend the Leipzig Conservatory but he directed the Gewandhaus Orchestra for many years and, at least in his adult life, immersed himself in the composerís repertoire performed by its original orchestra. This is undoubtedly the first time in twenty years that I have heard the Ruy Blas and the last performance was with Masur and the East Germans (I remember that they all wore the same pair of government issue shoes) on the road in Hartford. His familiarity leads to rather idiosyncratic phrasing emphasizing the staccato rather than the flowing legato, however, and perhaps he is a little too close to these pieces, as they all were presented as note-perfect as the Philharmonic can be expected to muster, but seemed a little on the stodgy side.

A good example was the trip to Fingalís Cave. It was clean and crisp where it should have been murky and mysterious. In marked contrast, a certain chill in the air more a propos of Scotland seemed to mar our voyage to Italy as there was no sense of childlike excitement, no swirl of Mediterranean dance, no fairy dust or gossamer. Only the performance of the Op. 95 overture seemed to capture the essential spirit of the work, Masur showing off the clarity of his troops in this Germanic march (the melody oddly reminiscent of the American football tune On Wisconsin). Overall, the evening was mildly unsatisfying, the entire performance leaving me with the feeling that Maestro had driven his big American gas-guzzler with the emergency brake engaged.

Associate Concertmistress Sheryl Staplesí reading of the concerto was little more than hausmusik. She possesses a very small sound for someone with a Guarnerius del Gesu instrument and never seemed to assert her own (or the composerís) individuality or ideas. Her larder is well stocked with staples but contains none of the spices which make a cuisine interesting; while her sweet vibrato was actually quite lovely in the second movement, even Masurís admirable restraint of the orchestra failed to establish the proper sonic balance between soloist and tutti and the conclusion of the work left both audience and soloist more with a sense of relief than exhilaration. Without question, Masur has improved this recalcitrant group somewhat, but it still remains for his successor to mould them into a fine artistically expressive unit. Like every other impatient New Yorker, Iíll believe it when I hear it.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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