Inextinguishable Fire – An Evening of Nielsen and Tchaikovsky at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, conductor, Robert Langevin, Flute, Nikolaj Znaider Violin

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Grieg's Composing Hut at Troldhaugen.

Grieg’s Composing Hut at Troldhaugen.

Avery Fisher Hall
Wednesday, October 10, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, October 12, 2012, 8:00 p.m.

Alan Gilbert, conductor
Robert Langevin, flute
Nikolaj Znaider, violin

Nielsen – Flute Concerto
Nielsen – Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 2, Little Russian

Last week, the New York Philharmonic, under its director Alan Gilbert, presented the latest installment of the “Nielsen Project,” an ambitious undertaking to perform and record the complete symphonies and concerti by the Danish composer in time for his 150th birthday in 2015. The program paired Nielsen’s well-known flute concerto and rarely heard violin concerto in the first half, followed by Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Symphony (“Little Russian”). At first glance it seemed that Gilbert’s choice of the tuneful, crowd-pleasing symphony might have been intended as a form of insurance that the concerts would draw an adequate public, given the fact that Nielsen, despite Leonard Bernstein’s valiant championing of the composer in the 1960s, remains an acquired taste for New York (and, in general, American) concertgoers. Yet careful listening revealed a profound and unexpected connection between the two composers, once again confirming Gilbert’s reputation for unusually thoughtful and intelligent programming.

The coupling of Nielsen’s flute and violin concerti was equally felicitous, as there is much to be gained by comparing the two compositions. Both owe a great debt to Nielsen’s background as a band player in the army, with their preponderance of winds, brass and timpani in the scoring. The solo instrument in each case performs cadenzas over extended drum rolls, and each concerto concludes with a flourish of brass and timpani, as the soloist embarks upon a madly frenetic moto perpetuo coda. On the lyrical side, in both concerti the solo instrument rises in a meandering scale, lingering poignantly on a leading-tone suspension, until finally resolving on the tonic. The slow movements of both works feature exquisite dialogues with the solo winds of the orchestra; Nielsen never leaves his soloists to “face the music” alone, but integrates them fully into the rich orchestral fabric.

This aspect of the composer’s style made it particularly satisfying to hear the New York Philharmonic’s principal, Robert Langevin, as the soloist in the flute concerto. His colleagues, especially the wind players, blended seamlessly and sympathetically with the solo line. The various orchestral solos (clarinet, bassoon, French horn, viola, and trombone (the latter with its humorous, grunting slides!) were executed so expertly that the traditional hierarchy of soloist and ensemble was blurred, validating Nielsen’s almost “chamber” conception of the concerto. Throughout, Langevin’s elegant lines and clear, dulcet purity of tone wove the disparate elements and ideas together into a cohesive whole.

Nielsen’s flute concerto represents the composer at his most searchingly modernistic; in fact, its world premiere in Paris arguably influenced an entire school of French compositions for the flute, having been attended by Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, and Arthur Honegger. The quick, mercurial mood changes, from violent to ironic to playful to lyrical, are reflected in abrupt stylistic and harmonic shifts, from tonal to nearly atonal, Romantic to proto-modern.

In contrast, the earlier violin concerto sounded particularly Romantic in the wake of the flute concerto. This effect was increased by heart-rending, exquisitely poignant moments rendered by violinist Nikolaj Znaider, whose voluptuous tone and passionate execution consistently drew the most out of the legendary “Kreisler” Guarnerius del Gesù on extended loan to him from The Royal Danish Theater. With his imposing stage presence, sovereign command of the instrument, and human warmth, Znaider proved himself to be Fritz Kreisler’s rightful heir. (He also clearly owes a great debt to his musical mentor, celebrated Russian violinist Boris Kushnir.)

Nielsen’s first instrument of study was the violin, and he played professionally for many years before dedicating himself exclusively to composition. His thorough knowledge of the instrument is evident in the expert writing for the solo part, in which virtuosity and technical brilliance abound. He wrote his violin concerto during a sojourn in Grieg’s composing hut at Troldhaugen near Bergen. The quirky, rollicking humor, open chords, fiddling passage work and “folkelig” (Nielsen’s favorite term for the folk quality of his music) elements that distinguish the final rondo reveal the great Norwegian composer’s spirit as the muse behind the work. A marked use of open string drones, particularly in the cadenzas, calls to mind the Hardanger fiddles used in Norwegian folk music. Znaider brought out these rustic features with great relish and panache, while never indulging in caricature, a temptation to which other violinists too often succumb. Indeed, Znaider’s interpretation manifested a mature understanding of the concerto’s complexities. In Nielsen’s own words, the work is “rich in content, popular, and dazzling without becoming superficial. These are contraries that must and will meet and be combined in a higher unity.” The composer wrote to his wife that the task of writing the violin concerto was “actually difficult, and therefore amusing.” He was particularly amused by the challenging contrasts in the piece, and he undoubtedly would have taken great delight in Znaider’s outstanding performance.

Gilbert was exemplary in listening sensitively and responding to the soloists in the two concerti; in the Tchaikovsky symphony, he showed his commanding, directorial side at its most impressive. Conducting without a score, he was able to connect more intimately with the orchestra, leaving no flourish or nuance of expression to chance, but sculpting each detail through a gesture.

The juxtaposition of Nielsen and Tchaikovsky proved to be a revelation, because it brought out commonalities between two composers who are not normally associated with each other. Like Nielsen with his violin concerto, Tchaikovsky composed “The Little Russian” symphony during a sojourn in the countryside – in this case, his sister’s estate near Kiev. The work owes its name to the use of traditional Ukrainian folk songs in its various movements; most notably, the haunting opening horn and bassoon solos of the tune, “Down by Mother Volga,” “Spin, O My Spinner,” played by the clarinet and flute in the second movement, and the “The Crane” as the principal theme for the finale. Songs that Tchaikovsky heard while he was working on the symphony found their way into the piece.

Another parallel between the two composers is the predominant use of winds, brass, and timpani in the orchestration, not only to underscore the dramatic energy and impulse of the music, but also to convey the colorful folk elements more vividly. Both composers indulge in abrupt changes of mood and expression, shifting unexpectedly from bombast to lyricism. In Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” symphony, this tendency is nowhere more evident than in the finale, in which bursts of timpani and percussion are followed in quick succession by tender effusion in the strings.

The explosive exuberance of gongs, cymbals and brass brought the symphony, and the evening, to an exhilarating, fiery conclusion. One could not help but think of Nielsen’s observation that “music is life, and, like it – inextinguishable.”

About the author

Victoria Martino

Victoria Martino is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and the University of California. A specialist in interdisciplinary studies, she has academic degrees in art history, literature and music. She has curated numerous international exhibitions, and has published over sixty catalogue essays and scholarly articles in more than six languages on artists and composers, including Wassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Sean Scully, Mimmo Paladino, John Baldessari, Josef Capek, and Zoran Music, among many others. An art, music, dance and theater critic, she has been a regular contributor to THE Magazine and various journals in Europe. Ms. Martino has participated in numerous international scholarly symposia and lectured widely. She has taught music, art history, and innovative humanities courses at universities in Australia and the United States. As a violin soloist and chamber musician, she has performed throughout Europe, Australia, Japan, and North America. A specialist in early and contemporary performance practice, Ms. Martino has a broad repertoire spanning six centuries. She is internationally known for her monographic performances (“marathons”) of the complete works for violin by various composers, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Ms. Martino has presented a number of interdisciplinary programs (lecture-concerts) in conjunction with exhibitions at many international institutions, including the Guggenheim Museums of New York, Bilbao, and Berlin, the National Art Gallery of Victoria (Australia), the National Art Gallery of Ontario (Canada), the National Art Gallery of Slovenia, the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Albertina in Vienna, the J. Paul Getty Museum and MOCA Los Angeles, to name only a few. Since 2004, she has presented an annual subscription lecture-concert series on the interrelationship between music and art throughout history at the Athenaeum Music and Art Library in La Jolla, California.

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