New York Philharmonic & Symphonica Toscanini/Lorin Maazel – Tribute to Toscanini

Don Juan, Op.20
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
Cavalleria Rusticana – Intermezzo
Macbeth – Studia il passo, o mio figlio! . . . Come dal ciel precipita
Don Carlo – Ella giammai m’amò
Don Giovanni – Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasia after Dante, Op.32

René Pape (bass)

New York Philharmonic
Symphonica Toscanini
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 16 January, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This New York Philharmonic concert on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Arturo Toscanini was a tribute to the late Maestro, who served as its Music Director from 1928 to 1936. Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic’s current Music Director, also used the occasion to present to the New York audience the recently founded Symphonica Toscanini, of which he is Music Director for life. Bass René Pape sang arias by Verdi and Mozart, filling in for soprano Renée Fleming, who had to withdraw owing to illness.

The Philharmonic opened the concert with Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan. The performance featured precise playing by the strings, well-executed solos by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and Thomas Stacy on English horn, among others, and, above all, excellent solo and ensemble playing from Philip Meyers’s horn section. Nevertheless, the performance seemed to lack the spark that might have ignited these elements into incandescence. Following this performance, the New Yorkers yielded the platform to Symphonica Toscanini.

Symphonica Toscanini, founded in Rome in May 2006 with Maazel as Music Director, is a group of nearly 200 young but experienced virtuoso musicians who alternate playing in the orchestra’s engagements and projects on a rotating basis. Maazel had conducted many of them as members of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, the Symphonica’s predecessor. The orchestra, dedicated to Toscanini’s musical ideals and integrity, is privately supported, drawing its funding from earned income, sponsorships and contributions. This concert was the fifth of fourteen performances in the orchestra’s eighteen-day “In the Footsteps of Toscanini – Symphony of the Air” tour of the United States. Other events to commemorate Toscanini this year include a Beethoven symphony cycle in Rome, performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” in Busseto, the composer’s birthplace, and of the “Requiem” and “Aida” first at Isola San Giovanni, Toscanini’s holiday home, and later on tour in South America, where (in Brazil) Toscanini made his conducting debut in 1886. Finally, at the end of 2007, the Symphonica will travel to Israel, where in 1936 Toscanini conducted the inaugural concert of the Palestine Philharmonic – now the Israel Philharmonic.

Symphonica Toscanini proved its mettle at once in an exciting rendition of Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, a work that Toscanini had conducted at its U.S. premiere in 1926 with the New York Philharmonic. From its sparkling opening (‘The Pines of the Villa Borghese’) to the powerful, martial conclusion (‘The Pines of the Appian Way’), the orchestra captured the music’s varied colors and moods. Respighi intended the four movements of this work, each named for the pines at a different Roman location, to depict them not as impressions of nature, but as a point of departure to recall events in the history of Roman life that the trees have witnessed. Thus at the Villa Borghese, children at play recall ancient soldiers and battles. (Here, in lieu of the six offstage buccine – ancient Roman horns –, which are called for in the score, New York Philharmonic brass players were stationed antiphonally in side balconies of the hall.) In ‘The Pines near a Catacomb’ a slow, hymn-like chant increased in volume and then died away, and in ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’ a piano solo introduced a nocturnal landscape, with wind solos augmented by recorded birdsong offering the song of a nightingale. The final movement, in march tempo, recalled the footsteps of Roman legions marching along the Appian Way, building to a huge climax, intensified by the added brass.

The audience responded with an enthusiastic ovation, which Maazel finally quietened by showing the audience a baton that had belonged to Toscanini and had just been presented to Maazel by the sponsor of Symphonica Toscanini’s current tour. Maazel then used Toscanini’s baton – for what he said would be the one and only time – to lead the Symphonica in a warm and delicate performance of the ‘Intermezzo’ from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, a Toscanini favourite.

Following the interval, Toscanini’s grandson, Walfredo Toscanini, introduced a film of his grandfather conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a 1951 televised Carnegie Hall performance of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from Wagner’s “Die Walküre“. Watching the Maestro’s conducting technique, one was struck by the sparing use of his left hand and the clarity of his baton strokes, which also had expressiveness far beyond demarcation of meter.

Bass René Pape then joined Symphonica Toscanini for two Verdi arias and Leporello’s ‘catalog aria’ from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Pape was in excellent voice, and was dramatically compelling in the Verdi arias and delightfully comedic in the Mozart. In the Don Carlo excerpt, the Symphonica’s principal cellist, Konstantin Pfiz, contributed outstanding solos.

The concert concluded with both orchestras joining forces for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. Although combining the two Maazel-directed ensembles was appropriate to the occasion and did offer some spectacular moments, it turned out to be a better idea on paper than in actuality. This was a case of the whole being less than any of its parts, as either orchestra could have given this work a better performance than they produced together. The combined ensemble lacked the perfect unison and clarity of sound that marked the earlier works on the programme, and the added volume of this double-sized orchestra (did I correctly count 17 double basses?) could not top the impact of the concluding bars of Pini di Roma heard earlier. Despite these reservations, it was entirely fitting to end the evening with the musicians of both orchestras on stage to receive the audience’s plaudits.

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