Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Saluting a Great Orchestra From a Country Under Siege

The Vienna Philharmonic have been revered as one of the world’s finest orchestras for over a century. One of their more recent traditions has been an outdoor Summer Night Concert. They’ve released their 2021 performance, with Daniel Harding on the podium and pianist Igor Levit, streaming at Spotify. The ensemble are obviously jumping out of their shoes with the joy of being allowed to play again. At this point in history, there’s no doubt that this magnificent concert represents the people of Austria far more than the sinister apartheid state being erected with echoes of another historical development just over the German border a little more than ninety years ago.

They open with a spacious, unhurried, utterly suspenseful performance of the Overture from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The brass/string harmonies are lusciously lustrous; the sudden leap into a gallop as the music picks up with a start is unselfconsciously breathtaking.

The piece de resistance should be Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the balance of energy and pillowy Romanticism that Harding draws out of it is visceral. It’s on the fast side, especially in the beginning, but who can argue with the shivers of the fleeting eighth movement, or the furtive bustle of the ninth, especially in context? And Levit builds expectant triumph into the famous andante cantabile love theme. What’s annoying is that like many other recent recordings of the suite, these intervals – many of them under a minute long – are broken up into individual tracks. You have to build your own playlist to fully enjoy this without having to constantly click on the next one.

Levit gets the stage to himself for a spare, somber take of Beethoven’s Fur Elise: as he sees it, what a sad, serious girl she must have been! Next on the bill are four of Leonard Bernstein’s Dances from West Side Story. The group launch into a dynamically swinging Prologue, complete with fingersnaps, then an aptly starry, summery Somewhere, a lilting Scherzo and a positively feral Mambo.

There’s not a lot an orchestra can do with Elgar’s schmaltzy Salut D’amour, but the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gives Harding and the ensemble a chance to bring up the lights slowly and memorably, with meticulously swirling strings and understated brass: this is a peace march, not a warlord’s pageant.

Plaintive woodwinds and a hypnotic lushness permeate Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arguably the most vivid piece on the bill. The orchestra wind up the concert on a jaunty, bubbly note with Jupiter, from Holst’s The Planets. Who knew how fast all this optimism and good cheer would evaporate in the months after this concert. The challenge will be to get it back: it only takes one generation for a totalitarian regime to annihilate the memory of any beautiful past.

January 15, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Glimpse of This Year’s Greenwich Village Orchestra Season

The buzz at the reception after Sunday’s Greenwich Village Orchestra concert was electric. On one hand, that’s to be expected after a show full of thrills like this one was. But people were still raving about the season’s first program, one veteran concertgoer venturing so far as to call that particular performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 the best she’d ever seen. “I keep telling people, you can spend a hundred and fifty bucks for the New York Philharmonic…or you can drop twenty bucks here, and it’s every bit as good,” said another. Much as Alan Gilbert has done very good things with the Philharmonic, one thing he hasn’t – to be fair, this probably isn’t part of his job description – is to lower ticket prices. The cheapest advertised seats to a recent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – a suite that’s a lot of fun but hardly the composer’s best work – were forty bucks. Suggested donation to the GVO is $20, $10 for seniors and kids. And afterward you can schmooze, grab a glass of wine or a snack if you’re so inclined and bask in the magic of what  you’ve just witnessed.

And the GVO draws a crowd that’s more committed and critical than most, an artsy bunch, many of them musicians themselves. They’re considerably younger, more diverse and more representative of the population of this city as a whole, compared to your typical blue-haired Lincoln Center audience. This time out there were plenty of families and kids along with the expected slate of retired folks and just average everyday people. If you’d put everyone who’d been at this performance n the same train, you’d never guess that they were all coming from the same concert. What did they see that made them so excited?

Music Director Barbara Yahr led them through Verdi’s Forza del Destino Overture to get things started. It’s not heavy or particularly profound music, but it is a way to get a quick read on how ready an orchestra and conductor are to shift on a dime, from lush and sweeping, to lively and balletesque, or to wistful and pensive, and this performance quickly reminded how friendly and intuitive the long relationship between this orchestra and conductor continues to be.

Baritone Jesse Blumberg joined them for Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer, which posed different challenges, again an easy barometer for how well an ensemble can rise to meet them. The song cycle is typical Mahler in that it uses the entirety of the sonic spectrum, meaning that everyone in the group has to be on their toes, and they were. Especially Blumberg. There’s a point in this lovelorn suite where the singer really has to reach back and belt over the orchestra as the angst rises, and Yahr made it clear that she wasn’t going to sacrifice any passion in the dynamics of her interpretation, but Blumberg made clear that his destino was to go to the well for all the extra forza required. As a bonus – something that often happens at GVO concerts – the more somber, subtle Mahler song that followed, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), was a surprise, not originally on the program.

The piece de resistance was the best performance of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration that this blog has ever witnessed – and there have been several. Some will disagree with this opinion, but it’s the composer’s greatest work. In the hands of this orchestra, it became the most dynamic and explosive tone poem ever written, complete with a member of the violin section providing an informative reading of the poetry that inspired it. It was here that the thematic sense of this concert – the GVO loves theme shows – became most vivid, an uneasy and bittersweet late-life reflection heavy on dubious choices and missed opportunities. The confidently pulsing orchestration early on was steady and suspenseful, voicing the waves of regret as the narrative went on, all the more potently affecting in contrast to the silky calm as the strings took the piece out with a pillowy touch. The Greenwich Village Orchestra has been a downtown fixture for decades and has a devoted following, but this season looks like the best in years. The orchestra’s next performance, December 13 at 3 PM, is their annual interactive family concert, featuring the children of the Actionplay chorus along with works by Bizet, Beethoven and Richard Strauss.

November 26, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment