A New York Orchestral Retrospective, mostly Autumn 2018

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Hector Berlioz, lithograph by Charles Baugniet, 1851.

Hector Berlioz, lithograph by Charles Baugniet, 1851.

Carnegie Hall, October 14, 2018

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Artistic Director and Conductor
Lucile Richardot, Mezzo-Soprano
Antoine Tamestit, Viola

All-Berlioz Program
Le Corsaire Overture
La mort de Cléopâtre
Selections from Les Troyens, Part II
·· “Chasse Royale et Orage”
·· “Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité”
Harold in Italy

“Le roi de Thulé” from La damnation de Faust, Op. 24

Not so long ago I read a note by a European string player who was a young student in the 1890s. He observed that gut strings were universal before the First World War. When they began to appear in the first decade of the twentieth century, they were considered functional but inferior, and mainly used by students. Wartime shortages then made them a regrettable necessity for working professionals and orchestras. I haven’t had a chance to investigate this properly, but the source is unquestionable. Wind instruments constantly evolved and were “improved” over the course of the nineteenth century, with its genius for mechanical inventions. This gives us an idea of when and how this crucial divide separated modern musicians and audiences from the techniques and sounds of earlier composers—meaning Mahler, not Mozart. There is still some general idea in the mind of the public that historical instruments and performance practices concern primarily music of the Baroque and Classical periods, but musicians have been applying the fruits of performance history to Romantic music for over twenty years—with gratifying results.

The musicians I celebrate at the beginning of this article, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, were at the forefront of these developments and the year of their founding, 1990, which was perhaps the most significant juncture in this trend. Period bands sound just right in Mendelssohn; many apparent problems in Schumann’s orchestrations disappear when period instruments are used; historical performance practices and instruments have opened up a fascinating new path of interpretation in Brahms. Acts of Wagner music dramas have been successfully performed in this way. To mention another field that has been little explored so far, Liszt’s tone poems might gather a new and broader appeal in historical performance. The music of Berlioz, however, with his revolutionary use of the instruments of the orchestra in tone-painting, have benefitted most obviously from being performed with the instruments of Berlioz’s own time and place.

New Yorkers can count themselves fortunate to live a city with the richest program of visiting orchestras in the hemisphere. If the conductor and the program are interesting—which is not always the case—it may be enough for the orchestra simply to come and play—preferably in Carnegie Hall with its splendid acoustics. However, the most rewarding visits have been extended ones, with series of at least three or four concerts, organized around some musicologically valid theme or historical development. Daniel Barenboim’s nine-concert Bruckner/Mozart cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin and his concerts devoted to the Second Viennese School with the Vienna Philharmonic are characteristic examples. The ORR’s visit, with two-all-Berlioz programs included some neglected Berlioz, along with his most familiar work, the Symphonie Fantastique, once the domain of French conductors, now a calling-card of recently appointment music directors and younger conductors making the rounds as guests.

On the surface these programs may seem like simple Berlioz feasts, but in fact they are built on an argument, including, as they do, two of the composer’s three symphonies—highly idiosyncratic one, to be sure—and juxtaposing them with works in other genres, which are nonetheless close to the symphonies in spirit, exercising a formative influence on Berlioz’s invention and structure. The first concert—the only one I could attend—began with one of his concert overtures, intended to be performed in concert without any connection to a stage work, “Le corsaire” (1844). With energetic rhythms and flamboyant orchestral color, Berlioz evoked the sheer adventurousness of the pirate’s life at sea, without telling any particular story. The evolution of the work’s title shows its rootlessness in relation to any particular literary source. Berlioz began it when he was taking a month of rest in Nice after his massive concerts at the Grand Festival de l’Industrie in Paris. Hence its original title was “La tour de Nice.” Its second title was “Le corsaire rouge,” alluding to James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Red Rover. Finally he omitted the word “rouge,” creating a relationship with Byron’s poem, The Corsair. Like the main work on the program Harold en Italie, the work was inspired by sights and experiences that struck Berlioz in his travels. The ORR’s performance was full of color, dash, and space. I daresay the tonal palette of this familiar work had a range we’ve never heard in even the best performances with modern orchestras. The period instruments fill the hall with both atmosphere and and sharp detail.

The true beginning of the concert was, however, a student work, “La mort de Cléopâtre” (1829), the third of  his four competition pieces for the Prix de Rome. This is a daring work which aroused some hostility among the judges, and no award was given that year. Berlioz finally won the prize the fourth time around with his  judiciously restrained “La mort de Sardanapale,” of which only a fragment survives. In “Cléopâtre” the twenty-six-year-old composer worked within the tradition of the baroque and classical dramatic cantata for solo voice and orchestre. We hear something of Cherubini and Beethoven in it, but also the French Baroque genre, so richly developed by Charpentier and his contemporaries, of a cantata for soprano on an intensely dramatic subject, like Medea, or, in this case the suicide of Cleopatra. The extreme shifts of mood and thought in Vieilliard’s libretto inspired intense expression in the composer, and this gave it the originality which frightened the judges. Maestro Gardiner met this on its own terms, bringing to it hallucinatory colors both in strings and winds, and biting attacks. I doubt that the orchestra that gave its first and only performance in Berlioz’s lifetime could approach the ORR’s virtuosity. The work was not published until 1903. The mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot gave a performance for the ages using a voice like burnished silver to follow an unerring course between the emotions and the dignity of the dying queen.

Much of the technique Berlioz mustered for “Cléopâtre” matured in Dido’s suicide scene in Les Troyens. Introduced by Berlioz’s most evocative scene-painting in the “Chasse Royale et Orage,” (which like “Le corsaire” combines landscape with action) Dido’s great monologue, magnificently sung by Mme. Richardot brought the first half of the concert to its conclusion with one of Berlioz’s greatest moments. “Cléopâtre” now is clearly no unworthy predecessor of the composer’s operatic masterpiece, and it shows how he developed it from French tradition.

Harold en Italie is a symphony with viola obbligato, because Paganini commissioned it from Berlioz to display his new Stradivarius viola, but the solo instrument’s disquisitions and commentaries on the orchestral narratives have a vocal quality and give the symphony the character of a dramatic cantata or opera. The role of Harold was taken on by Antoine Tamestit, playing a 1672 Stradivarius. His repertoire spans the Baroque and the present day, including several new commissions expressly by for for him. He is perhaps most identifiable to New Yorkers through his ongoing association with the violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. His characterization was warm and expansive, but slightly restrained in a way that only enhanced his eloquence through his clean articulation of Berlioz’s Byronesque rhetoric. The sound of his instrument was both rich and burnished, as it emerged and receded within the masses of the orchestra. An ideal interpreter of music rooted in literature, his infinite grasp of nuance extended from deep feeling to ironic wit. M. Tamestit emerged and receded physically, in fact, as he wandered around the orchestra, as Berlioz wandered around Italy during his escapes from the French Academy, enacting his musical  phrases. He disappeared among the players, in fact, during his encounter with the brigands in the fourth movement. This struck me initially as a gesture dangerously close to a distracting gimmick, but it never impaired Tamestit’s glorious playing, and, once one got into the Romantic spirit, it proved only a minor, enjoyable distraction. To look at it constructively, it helped illustrate Gardiner’s understanding the programmatic roots and inspiration of a Berliozian “symphony.” The soloist was not the only enhancement of the particular range of timbres Berlioz envisioned for this music. As in other works on this program, Harold benefitted from an expanded band of cornets playing from opposite sides of the stage, including saxhorns, as well as ophicleides taking the parts played by tubas in modern orchestras. The unfamiliar sounds seemed both bizarre and absolutely right for the score. 

The other brilliant soloist, Lucile Richardot, sang “Le roi de Thulé” from La damnation de Faust as an encore, with beauty and taste, bringing the house down at the end.

* * *

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák with his friends and family in New York.

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák with his friends and family in New York.

Carnegie Hall, October 27-28, 2018

Czech Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov, Music Director and Chief Conductor
Alisa Weilerstein, Cello

All-Dvořák Program
Cello Concerto
Symphony No. 7

Slavonic Dance in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 2
Slavonic Dance in C Major, Op. 46, No. 1

Czech Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov, Music Director and Chief Conductor
Christiane Karg, Soprano
Elisabeth Kulman, Mezzo-Soprano
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Lukáš Vasilek, Principal Conductor
Mahler – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

I am putting the Czech Philharmonic’s visit to Carnegie Hall in bed with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s period band because, as the great orchestras of Europe become more and more rarified, losing some of their traditional character, this orchestra remains loyal to its grand tradition, with its rich, meaty strings and characterful, occasionally gritty brass, and colorful, individualized woodwinds. Nearby Dresden cleaves to the same conservative path. (I fear that Leipzig, now, with its slick transatlantic music director, Andris Nelsons, and a program to improve the instruments, may go the other way.) It occurred to me that it might make sense to consider this endangered species in a historical light, since this down-to-earth way of playing, originating in the late nineteenth century, now seems like something from the past, when one recalls recent visits of the BPO, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and even, to some degree, the Concertgebouw. I hope with all my heart that the remaining few keep the faith, for theirs is a deeply satisfying way of music-making.

Their former music director, Jiří Bělohlávek, then suffering from his final illness, conducted on their last visit, and his successor, Semyon Bychkov, fortunately shows little sign of changing the basic sound and method of playing. The ensemble retains the old Central European quality of unanimity rather than sharp attacks. Both conductors relish expressive variations of tempo, from section to section, and in transitional rubato in their own individual ways. While many conductors restrain this in the quintessential Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák (and one can be thankful in most cases, since nothing sounds more artificial than rubato performed by a musician who doesn’t understand it), Bělohlávek and Bychkov are masters of it. Bělohlávek used tempo contrasts to distinguish sections of a movement, revealing a particular insight into the structure of a slow movement or contrasting different dance types in a scherzo. In his tempo changes Bychkov has his own rhapsodic method of musical storytelling, the rationale for which is not immediately obvious, but its magnetic power to draw us into flow of movements and whole works is irresistible. He is also able to exert his magic with different orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, which is by not quite as flexible as Czech Philharmonic, especially in Geffen Hall. The working of Bychkov’s tempo choices in the different works on his two programs was fascinating. The Cello Concerto has its own rhapsodic freedom, while the D Minor Symphony shows Brahmsian solidity in its structure. Then he had his way in totally enchanting performances of two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, one from Op. 72, the other from Op. 46. Bychkov’s particular genius for flexibility in tempo worked magic on these familiar short pieces, which seemed entirely fresh and alive in his hands.

Bychkov conceived the first and second movements of the symphony on a large scale, balancing Brahmsian architecture with Romantic expansiveness. The slow movement was especially probing in its range of feeling and close attention to detail and the integrity of individual sections. Unexpectedly, the Scherzo proved to be a special revelation. Even though the Scherzo of Dvořák’s Eighth, with all the care and elaboration he gave it, is obviously a masterpiece among his symphonic movements, conductors rarely give it the weight and importance Bychkov sees in it. It is far more than a relaxation between a slow movement and a finale, but a substantial composition in its own right. One could see it as part of Dvořák’s hommage to his friend Brahms—clear enough  in the overall structure and style of the symphony, but especially striking in the Scherzo, since Brahms’s Hungarian Dances were the inspiration and the model for Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. Here Dvořák wanted to ennoble the dance and the scherzo genres by giving the dance music he typically incorporated into his scherzos the full substance worthy of a Brahmsian scherzo, and arguably surpassing it.

As energetic, sensitive, and colorful as Maestro Bychkov’s treatment of the orchestral part of the Cello Concerto, I found Alisa Weilerstein’s performance somewhat lacking. Her expression and tempo choices were convincing in themselves, but there was a sense that she was still consciously imposing them on the score from without. It seems she needs more time with this masterpiece of the cello repertoire, in order to interiorize the music, so that her playing and her interaction with the orchestra seem organic and spontaneous. It may be some years before she fully realizes her potential with this work. She might do well to study what the composer wanted to achieve in this unusual work, composed during his American years. Just how its diverse elements—the lyrical, the folk, and the heroic—are meant to work together. The opus classicum of this period, the Symphony “From the New World” still has its enigmatic aspects, and so does the Cello Concerto. Dvořák also set the range of the cello in a high register, and Weilerstein’s tone there seemed rather thin. She often disappeared behind the heavy scoring of the orchestra, especially in the first movement.

In Mahler, Bychkov goes his own way, and the more I hear of it the more I can relate to it. When I heard him conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in 2017, I was astonished as well as  nonplussed by his extremely slow tempi and the immense detail he brought out in the score, thanks to the clarity of the orchestra’s textures. I was unconvinced. As much as I appreciate the Fifth, I didn’t think it could support such close examination. I thought the most powerful aspect of the performance was the way in which Bychkov brought out the macabre moments in the composer’s invention, and on the whole, I was fascinated. Mahler’s Second was also at times broad in tempo, but not always. This performance carried me along in the composer’s sweeping narrative, from the sense-impressions—largely aural, of course—of life-experience, to the transcendental message about life at the end. Bychkov brought it all together as musical story-telling, echoing unintentionally some to the ambiguities of Berlioz’s symphonism I mentioned above. There are conductors who seem to present Mahler’s Second Symphony and others in a clear map, where the listener knows exactly where he is from moment to moment, and there are others, some of which, like Nelsons’s and Gergiev’s can be unsatisfactory: Bychkov belongs to that latter group, and he succeeds materfully in this risky approach. The fleshier, denser string sound of the Czech Philharmonic kept detail within measure in this symphony which is essentially different from the more absolute Fifth. Prague Philharmonic Choir (Lukáš Vasilek, Principal Conductor) sang magnificently, as did Christiane Karg, Soprano, and Elisabeth Kulman, Mezzo-Soprano, was one of the most perfect and moving executants of “Urlicht” I have heard.

This deeply moving performance, I should add, carried a subtext for the orchestra, as one of the most significant cultural ambassadors of the Czech Republic, and the Czechs in the the audience, as it was performed in commemoration of the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Mahler’s family was from Moravia, which was a part of the country which eventually formed part of that.


I’ll add here my somewhat spottier experiences with the New York Philhamonic, just to make this a complete account of the relatively few orchestral performances I heard in New York. I unfortunately could not attend the most recent appearances of Manfred Honeck and Semyon Bychkov, who consistently work wonders with the orchestra. My reports stem from one rather unsatisfactory concert last spring under the new Music Director (then designate), Jaap van Zweden, and a more successful, but limited one this past fall.

From performances I’d heard at Tanglewood a few years ago, I formed the impression, above all from a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, one of van Zweden’s calling card pieces, that he was a technically strong conductor, relying on a simple, Toscaninian/Szellian formula of a tight beat with sharp attacks and a bright timbre, but an artistically limited one, reductively focusing on excitement and virtuosity—by no means in the same class as his models, almost a caricature. I enjoyed the Tchaikovsky. The wonderful TMC Orchestra were more than equal to van Zweden’s demands. But I was still surprised when the New York Philharmonic hired him a Music Director—especially over Manfred Honeck, whom I respect more than any conductor working in the United States, with the exception of Riccardo Muti. With all affection, I understand that New York audiences are quickly bored, given the immense onslaught of cultural stimuli we have at our fingertips,  and it seemed that the Maestro lacked the range to keep his flock entertained over the course of a year, much less the length of his contract.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
Saturday, March 3, 2018, 8:00 p.m. 

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano 

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1
Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 

After two concerts with the Philharmonic, I don’t know what to think. In the spring of 2018 van Zweden conducted Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with Yuja Wang, followed by Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The Prokofiev  was solid. Balances were on the whole good, and the infernal harshness of Geffen Hall was reasonably subdued, but it seemed insufficiently thought-out and prepared, and, as good as it was, the performance fell short of the invention and feeling the composer had put into the work, one of his masterpieces. The Brahms was a bewildering mess. The conductor who had pursued such precision and brilliance at Tanglewood now tolerated some sloppy ensemble, staggered attacks, and a general lack of coordination with the soloist, who gave what I thought to be an excellent reading of the concerto. Her tempi were quite broad, and her phrasing and coloring were straightforward and genuinely eloquent. Yuja Wang was aiming for a serious, broad performance. I couldn’t understand what there was to disagree with, but van Zweden seemed constantly at cross-purposes with her, to the detriment of the orchestra’s playing. My thought was that the conductor was entirely out of sympathy with his soloist, and that he was adjusting his usual technique to work with the deficiencies of the hall’s acoustics. He seemed to be experimenting with ways to mitigate the glassy steeliness (or the steely glassiness?) of the hall’s effect on violins. I regret that I didn’t watch the fiddlers’ bowing more closely.

Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
Thursday, September 27, 2018, 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 28, 2018, 8:00 p.m. 

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

Conrad Tao – Everything Must Go (World Premiere–New York Philharmonic Commission)
Bruckner – Symphony No. 8 

My second van Zweden concert consisted of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, fashionably preceded by a derivative work by Conrad Tao, Everything Must Go, a world premiere of a New York Philharmonic commission. Tao surely put some work into it, and it seemed well-assembled, and he understood the sonorities, harmony, and counterpoint of the masterpiece he was imitating, but, by the nature of his goals, Tao was limited to creating an occasional piece. Van Zweden led the orchestra straight into the Bruckner, all’attacca, falling into a fashionable vice which I find almost as irritating as tweeting among the audience, encourage by the management. This—shortlived, I hope— affectation demeaned both Mr. Tao’s piece and Bruckner’s symphony. Why, why do you people do this?! (from a voice crying in the wilderness). The Philharmonic played beautifully, as they usually do, even if the hall doesn’t do them justice. Van Zweden adopted an almost perverse objectivity in his tight phrasing and quickish tempi. This was late Bruckner on a diet—and above all, kein Bier…oder Kirche, wie Du willst. In his earlier career, Bruckner wanted nothing better than to be accepted—and properly admired—in the mainstream of Romantic symphonists, and this holds as far as his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, with the transcendental outpouring of the Fifth in between. His Catholic mysticism nonetheless, showed its head in his earlier slow and final movements, and the Fifth showed where he was going, with the Seventh straddling both worlds—in its absolutely perfect way. Bruckerians, both casual and deep, tend to think of the Eighth and the Ninth as his crowning achievements, in which his spiritual awareness and his mastery of composition brought him to the level of Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and the late string quartets. However, van Zweden interpreted the Eighth in a down-to-earth way, following the example of the Fourth, as a contained Romantic symphony, eschewing everything but a hint of spirituality. There are echoes of the Fourth in the Eighth in the medievalizing passages of the earlier symphony hinted at in the later. The orchestra played most expressively in the constrained area van Zweden allowed them; his interpretation, which I thought rather perverse, was consistently thought-out and well-executed, but I don’t think I’d being a fuddy-duddy in expecting more from a journey through the Eighth. It’s not all about notes and style, after all.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Sony’s must-have collection of the New York Philharmonic’s commercial recordings, many of which are magnificent, as you might expect. After some dithering I decided to begin with Barbirolli and move on to Rodzinski, and so on. The playing of the orchestra, especially the unanimity and beauty of the strings was the equal of any in the United States at the time. The musicians in the orchestra are as strong as ever, but one appreciates their mastery bit by bit in isolation. The New York Philharmonic in my opinion, will never achieve its former glory, particularly because of the labored ensemble of the string section, and from their to the entire orchestra, while remaining in its present home of now 56 years. Given the failure to fund the projected renovation of what is now known as David Geffen Hall, the only feasable path—and a most enticing one—is a return to Carnegie Hall—and that was in fact discussed some years ago.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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