Swans Commentary » swans.com March 12, 2007  



Concerts And An Opera In New York


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - March 12, 2007)   It felt like an "Akademie" of old: "monster concerts" as we would call them, when the audiences arrived at 6:00 and didn't leave till midnight. Symphonies and concertos would be performed, arias sung, and chamber music would fill in the cracks. On one such Akademie back in 1808 (200th anniversary coming up next year) Beethoven presented the world premieres of not only his 5th but his 6th symphony as well. Music Director Leon Botstein directed his American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) on Friday February 9 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in a program, which while adhering to more modern requirements of attendance time, merely in by 8:00 and out by 11:00, managed to give his audience its evening entertainment's worth with an almost equally varied fare.

Not just one virtuoso violinist as soloist, but two (one of the two soloists said to me it felt almost like a competition), in addition to a flamboyant percussionist and a world-class pianist. You want premieres? Botstein and his forces were joined by international soloist Robert Davidovici in the American premiere of the Violin Concerto Op. 19 (1928) by Paul Kletzki (1900-1973) following immediately (or immediately enough to have the stage completely re-set) with the New York premiere of Harold Farberman's (1929-) Concerto for Violin, Percussion, and Orchestra (2006) with equally credentialed Guillermo Figueroa on violin and the irrepressible Simon Boyar on percussion. (It might have been a world premiere except that Figueroa, illustrious as both violinist and conductor, had performed the work a few weeks before with his own Puerto Rico Symphony of which, besides that of the New Mexico Symphony, he is the music director.)

The orchestra on its own had started the evening with a work that, if not a premiere, hadn't probably been heard in these parts for almost 100 years, the Variations on an original Theme by George Szell (1897-1970) of 1913 (unless Szell himself had presented it to his Cleveland audiences in later years). And not to have their audience feel they hadn't received enough for their money the ASO with Benjamin Hochman as piano soloist front and center performed one further trifle, the entire Symphony #2 of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), The Age Of Anxiety (1949/1965).

If the names Szell, Kletzki, Farberman, and Bernstein suggest a theme, you're right: composers who were also conductors, or vice versa. (I missed Lukas Foss among this company, though he did get an appreciative mention of recognition in the program notes.) Botstein was continuing this theme from last year when he resurrected for the first time in 100 years the Symphony by Bruno Walter.

I had attended the dress rehearsal the previous day. As the glorious and inspired sounds of the Szell wafted through my ears I tried, not knowing any of the details of the work, to figure it out. It was as if Max Reger and Richard Strauss had sat down and written a piece together. At concert time I discovered that indeed, Szell had been a student of Reger and soon thereafter a protégé of Strauss at the Berlin State Opera.

I also learned that the composer had been only 16 years old when he wrote these iridescent orchestral variations, taking my mind back to the 16-year-old Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and his Octet (1825), perhaps the most glorious composition ever to have been written by an inspired youth. I wondered if Reger's transcendent Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart (1914) had served Szell as a model. But no, though many other Reger variations had preceded Szell's, the Mozart Variations themselves had actually followed Szell's! Had student inspired the teacher to even greater heights? And surely Strauss's recently premiered Rosenkavalier (1911) had inspired many of the slippery and gorgeous kaleidoscopic harmonic juxtapositions we had just heard.

The concert's program informed us that the young Szell had been hailed by the London press at age 11 as another Mozart, both as pianist and composer; and that the 14-year-old Szell had been offered a 10-year contract for his compositions by Universal Edition of Vienna. I thought again of the litany of beloved composers whose careers had been cut short by their early deaths: Pergolesi, Mozart, Bellini, Mendelssohn, Bizet, Gershwin. Szell, though while achieving ripe years at 73, himself performed an act of homicide on his own youthful alter ego as a composer when the irresistible lure of the baton presented itself shortly afterwards to the still teen-aged genius as his sole means of musical expression, though great chamber music at the piano still continued to play a role in his musical career.

Born the very same year as Szell, his equally young and equally-hailed contemporary Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) did persist in his compositional career and Korngold's non-Hollywood music is only more recently receiving the recognition it deserves. But whoever thinks nowadays of George Szell as a composer? On the basis of hearing these Variations I say: what an appalling and frustrating loss to music did Szell perpetrate when he deprived the world of his genius as a composer.

The Farberman-Botstein-Figueroa axis is a sort of family affair: Farberman in his well-known capacity as conducting guru served as mentor to both Botstein and Figueroa. In recent years atonal serialist composers have been largely elbowed aside by minimalists and other eclectics seeking more mellifluous sounds. But the other night, one unreconstructed 12-tonalist, Harold Farberman, came out with both fists flying and all cannons firing (literally). It was as if some prehistoric Godzilla of mass destruction had been let loose if not onto the streets of New York at least into the audience at Fisher Hall, seeking bloody gobbets of nourishment.

Farberman, himself a famous percussionist, allowed the peripatetic Simon Boyar to serve as his representative on stage. The audience seemed to know what to expect as they welcomed the two soloists and conductor (especially Boyar) with appreciative recognition. They were not to be disappointed. From thunderous bongos and side drums at upstage audience right, down to marimba and xylophone (plus many more doo-dads along the way) at stage front and audience left, Boyar would scamper as the piece progressed, firing off one salvo after another. Figueroa, however, was forced to return fire from one fixed spot only, (occasionally inaudibly unfortunately, due to those resonant percussion instruments), center stage just in front of conductor Botstein.

(It reminded me of Lukas Foss's Orpheus, in which the solo violist would wander peripatetically from spot to spot on the stage interacting chamber music style with various scattered ensembles.)

Surely if this piece is ever to be recorded a normal CD would be completely inadequate. It would take a DVD to capture the concert-theatrical events transpiring onstage that night. It reminded me of those days in the 1960s when similar stage events would be blasted forth by the avant gardists of that time to epater their bourgeois musical public. Well, that bourgeois public, or at least the one at the ASO, seems to have come a long way baby as they received Farberman's piece with rapturous approval.

Little by little the piece calmed down and eventually more lyrical moments were to be heard. As a climactic summing up, soloist and orchestra strings sang together in high unison, reminding me of the similar unmistakable spot towards the end of the Berg Violin Concerto. When I pointed this parallel out to Farberman afterwards, his fiery eyes glowed with appreciation that someone had caught on to his deliberate bow to his great predecessor. Stravinsky had poetasted Pergolesi in the 1920s; Rochberg had poetasted Mahler in the 1970s; now Farberman too had looked to a great composer of the past for inspiration.

It was not only the Jewish composers who had died in Nazi death camps whose works are now becoming heard. Without directly murdering them the Nazis had managed to quash the careers of other Jewish musical and literary artists, some of them already quite eminent. The name Stefan Zweig springs immediately to mind. Botstein has been following the careers of two such Nazi musical victims, Franz Schreker (1878-1934) and Paul Kletzki (1900-1973). Schreker's reputation as an operatic composer had equaled that of Puccini and Richard Strauss up to the time his works were banned in 1933. Only in recent years are his operas again to be seen. Botstein and the ASO's contribution to the Schreker revival will take place later this spring when they will present a concert version of Der Ferne Klang (1912).

But Friday night it was Kletzki's turn to be spotlighted. His youthful reputation, though not so world-recognized as Schreker's, had been growing too in the 1920s. But his music as well had to undergo decades of oblivion before being revived more recently by Botstein and others. In the interim his worldwide reputation as an often-recorded conductor had to suffice to carry on his reputation.

Kletzki's Violin Concerto had been frequently performed in pre-Nazi Germany by Kulenkampf but had never yet been heard in America. Soloist Davidovici handled the demanding solo part with the panache and technical command the part called for and for which he is noted, and made a convincing case for the music.

At times the freely tonal, but not atonal (as Kurt Weill's Violin Concerto was) 3-movement concerto seems to be trying to take the Brahms concerto one step further, complete with elaborate cadenza in its usual place, at later moments to be cultivating more tropical, popular idioms complete with castanets and sensuous glissandi. This was an approach later to be followed in their violin concerti by Walton and Prokofieff (the second). The first movement seemed rather hard to follow despite a motto presented at the beginning, but the second movement with its lyrical serenity and the third, a bumptious, infectious, fugue-opened romp, seemed to draw the audience more closely to the work. Kletzki's harmonies, free but not atonal, would have been easily recognized by Shostakovich and Prokofieff.

In its earlier days, Bernstein's The Age Of Anxiety had its famous piano solo performed somewhere towards the back of the orchestra. But when the composer revised the work in the 1960s he put the pianist right out in front like the true soloist that he is. This is the way the ASO presented the work with virtuoso jazz playing by Benjamin Hochman as soloist. I and everyone else waited for that wonderful moment when the pianist begins to portray the conversationalists of Auden's poem as having a good time at a party by displaying Gershwin-style jazz/pops pianism at great length. The way that pianist Hochman traded jabs with the normally-positioned percussion section at the back of the orchestra suggested strongly that Farberman had found a model here too for the cutting and thrusting between his violin soloist and his percussionist. At any rate it closed a ring in this particular concert.

Earlier in the day I had attended a matinee performance of the New York Philharmonic in this very same hall conducted by Alan Gilbert and with German pianist Lars Vogt as soloist in the Beethoven First Piano Concerto. The concert opened with Swedish composer Daniel Boertz's (1943-) work Parodos for orchestra (1987) getting its American premiere and concluded with the complete Images for orchestra (1912) of Debussy (1862-1918) including the less often heard Gigues and Rondes de Printemps as preludes to the more frequently heard Iberia.

Try as it might Sweden has never managed to bring forth a composer of international respect and popularity as Norway has Grieg, Finland Sibelius, and Denmark Nielsen. Judging from what I heard in Parodos, Daniel Boertz is not going to be the one to fill the bill either unless the general musical public takes a sudden overwhelming liking to the Lutoslawski manner. Boertz has seemingly striven to make the famous Pole his model much as Farberman has chosen Berg.

Germany's most highly touted present day try at pianistic immortality, Lars Vogt, presented an excellent and well-received account of Beethoven's (1770-1827) First (actually second) Piano Concerto, written at 25 (1795). Vogt supplied as first movement cadenza Beethoven's own third, last, and longest try, from 1814, at this material thus giving the 44-year-old composer one final brilliant take on music from his youth. Vogt supplied vigor, poetry, and Beethovenian flexibility at all the appropriate moments and left the audience, I'm sure, wanting a return engagement.

The night before I had attended Bellini's I Puritani (1835; sadly, the 34-year-old composer's final year) at the Metropolitan Opera. Bellini, (1801-1835) among other things, was a man of formula, much like writers and producers in Hollywood at a later time. Long drawn out scenas for mad or otherwise emotionally unhinged sopranos seemed often de rigueur for his awaiting public. The line from Il Pirata through Norma, through La Sonnambula to I Puritani seems though predestined, ever so glorious. Along the way Donizetti (1797-1848) also added his most famous version of the genre, Lucia di Lammermoor, like I Puritani from 1835, also set in the British Isles, and also based on Walter Scott.

What impresses one most about these rapturous moments is their great length and arch of time between tentative recitative and triumphant cabaletta. Rossini had shown the way with the dungeon aria from Semiramide (1823) and his followers knew a great thing when they heard it. In I Puritani glorious high notes were supplied in fecund abundance by soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Gregory Kunde and a virile male duet (precursor of the one in Verdi's Don Carlo) was sung by bass-baritones Franco Vassallo and John Relyea. Settings and costumes were, as usual at the Met, apropos for their time and place, the British Civil War of the 1640s, and beautifully executed. Not, thank goodness, like the Berlin City Opera of last season which had all the characters in its 3,000-year-old-plot-lined Semiramide (the last of the opera seria) walking around in modern business suits. Perhaps they couldn't afford real costumes.


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About the Author

Dr. Isidor Saslav, Concertmaster of the Longview (TX) Symphony and Head of the String Department at Stephen F. Austin State University, ret. has served as concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Minnesota, Baltimore, and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras, and the opera orchestras of Indiana University, the Baltimore Opera, and at the Kennedy Center. His editions of Haydn String Quartets have been published by the Henle Edition through the Joseph Haydn Institute (Cologne), and his writings on playwright George Bernard Shaw have appeared in various Shavian publications including SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies. He is one of the founders of the International Shaw Society.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 12, 2007