New York Philharmonic/Maazel – 7 & 21 June

7 June

Symphony No.3
Piano Concerto in F
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

21 June

Simple Songs
Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Jessica Jones (soprano)
Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo-soprano)
New York Choral Artists

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 21 June, 2003
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

In the New York Philharmonic’s first concert program following the stunning announcement of the orchestra’s plans to abandon Lincoln Center and return to Carnegie Hall in 2006, Lorin Maazel led the orchestra in a very impressive performance of 20th-century works by Harris, Gershwin, Debussy and Varèse. The program was somewhat different from what had originally been scheduled. It was supposed to have begun with the premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Fourth Symphony, a New York Philharmonic commission. But two months ago, when Knussen informed the Philharmonic that he would not have the work completed on time, the Third Symphony of the American composer Roy Harris was substituted as the concert opener.

The Harris, composed in 1939-39, was a surprising but nonetheless suitable substitution. The title page reads “Third Symphony in One Movement”, but the 16-minute work falls into five clearly articulated sections. The first (“tragic”) section begins with a wonderful cello melody punctuated by violas. The melodic line continues to evolve until the horns and woodwinds enter in a calmer “lyric” section, which leads into a “pastoral”, where woodwinds project a series of melodic fragments against a polytonal background of vibrating strings. The fourth section, a somber and dramatic fugue is followed by the final (“dramatic”) section ending in obsessive timpani strokes. Maazel elicited an eloquent, highly polished performance of the symphony, bringing out every detail of the music.

The Viennese pianist Rudolf Buchbinder was the soloist in a brash and vigorous performance of the Gershwin Piano Concerto. Its driving rhythms, bluesy melodies and Americana themes were brought to life by both Buchbinder and the orchestra in a somewhat exaggerated but still fascinating performance.

A clear and highly controlled reading of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – highlighted by the exquisitely expressive solo playing of principal flute Robert Langevin – preceded an exciting performance of Varèse’s rarely performed Amériques. Written in the early 1920s, this tumultuous piece was revised by the composer in 1927, and again in the early 1960s. The 1927 version played in this concert uses 125 players – a reduction from the 142 required in Varèse’s original score – and includes a 12-member percussion section employing such unusual instruments as whips, rattles, sleigh bells, a lion’s roar (a drum with strings attached) and a siren. Keeping together is a challenge in this boisterous, radical piece, in which large instrumental groups frequently juxtapose seemingly unrelated themes. Instruments are played at the extremes of their registers, with numerous crescendos and diminuendos ending in a potentially deafening din. When the piece ended, more than half of the audience immediately stood up and cheered, while others, still covering their ears, scrambled for the exits.

On June 21 Maazel led the orchestra in another ambitious program. Originally composed as a chamber work, the 25-minute Kernis song-cycle for soprano and orchestra was written in 1991. This performance marked the New York premiere of the 1995 revision, which expanded the string complement to provide more warmth and body. The sparingly worded texts for the five songs are drawn from assorted religious sources and explore different visions of spiritual life. The first is by Hildegard von Bingen, the second and fifth are Psalms (numbers 1 and 131, respectively), the fourth is by Zen master Ryokan, and the fifth by Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. The musical settings are for the most part as spare and enigmatic as the texts. Soprano Jessica Jones’s bright soprano explored a wide range of moods and then floated easily through the many a cappella moments of the final song, “Lord, my mind is not noisy with desires”, which is most notable for the slow, expansive celestial visions of Mahler it evokes.

Lorin Maazel can at times be a wilful conductor of Mahler, but in this performance of the Second Symphony, his reading was consistently impressive. Conducting the daunting 90-minute work for orchestra, two vocal soloists and chorus from memory, he displayed enormous energy and confidence throughout the five movements. Following the tension-filled opening of the first movement, the main theme was unleashed with terrifying power and developed with extraordinary clarity. Most impressive in this movement were the woodwinds and the warm tones of the strings, especially the cellos. Throughout the whole movement, there was a genuine feeling of intense drama.

Following the five-minute break specified in the score, the ’Andante’ was gloriously played. Briskly conducted, the movement communicated the highly affecting gentleness and lyricism of Mahler’s nature painting. Following the quietly flowing third movement, Cornelia Kallisch delivered an awe-inspiring interpretation of “Urlicht” (Prima Light), at once prayerful and urgent. In the grandiose final movement, Maazel’s pace was more fluid than it had been elsewhere in the work. There were many thrilling moments, although I wished the off-stage brass had sounded more distant. Jessica Jones and the magnificent New York Choral Artists offered a vibrantly calm rendition of “Auferstehung”, the resurrection poem by Klopstock. Maazel’s dynamic and highly focused conducting resulted in a hearty standing ovation from the audience, and brought an eventful Philharmonic season to a thrilling conclusion.

  • The performance on June 7 was preceded by performances on June 5 and 6
  • The performance on June 21 was preceded by performances on June 19 and 20
  • New York Philharmonic

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