New York String Orchestra/Laredo Leon Fleisher

Made in America
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15

Leon Fleisher (piano)

New York String Orchestra
Jaime Laredo

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 28 December, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

This was a most satisfying concert, featuring excellent playing of a new work and two classics by an orchestra of musicians of ages 15 to 22 under the capable direction of Jaime Laredo, including an outstanding performance by Leon Fleisher of one of the greatest piano concertos.

Each year, outstanding young music students from conservatories, colleges and high schools across the United States and Canada are chosen through competitive auditions to participate in the New York String Orchestra Seminar. The students come to New York on full scholarship during the winter holiday period for ten days of chamber music sessions with master chamber music artists, intensive orchestral rehearsals under Laredo’s leadership, and two public orchestral concerts at Carnegie Hall. This year’s orchestra was comprised of 63 students from 24 states, four Canadian provinces, and ten other countries. The orchestra’s name has remained unchanged since Alexander Schneider founded it in 1969, although it includes the full range of symphonic instruments. Alumni of past seminars include many prominent soloists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Cho-Liang Lin, Gil Shaham, and Shlomo Mintz, as well as members of leading orchestras and chamber ensembles and teachers at distinguished conservatories and universities. Judging from the quality of this concert, this year’s crop is likely to be equally successful in the years ahead.

The programme opened with a performance of American composer Joan Tower’s Made in America, a work commissioned by a consortium of American regional orchestras from all 50 states. In the year since its October 2005 premiere, it has been played dozens of times around the United States, but this was its Carnegie Hall premiere. The piece is based on the song “America the Beautiful”, but the quotations and variations based on that original source are often relatively subtle and interwoven with other melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements. The orchestra was quite adept in capturing the varied textures.

The piece began softly on the violins with the flute playing a variant on the ‘America the Beautiful’ theme. Other instruments joined in, creating interesting sonic textures as the volume gradually increased. The low strings played rhythmically below violin tremolos, horns and trombones. The music suddenly softened, then built to a loud crescendo. The theme became more prominent in the middle of the piece, emerging, after an eerie passage on the first violins, in a horn solo that was followed by solos for flute, clarinet (played against bouncy figures on the cellos) and first violin, and then by a tutti in which the theme was quite prominent. Tower keeps the percussionists busy, calling on them to play a fairly wide range of instruments. As the piece neared its ending, there were dissonant trumpet figures, runs for flute and piccolo, and up-sweeping figures on the violins. A drum roll and strong orchestral chords first softened and then built in a final crescendo to the concluding chord.

The orchestra gave Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony an exciting performance of completely professional quality. Laredo adopted brisk tempos that were consistent with present-day performance practise and had the young musicians playing in unison and with fine balance among the various instruments. The orchestra’s phrasing throughout the symphony and its execution of sforzandos and other effects called for in the score were uniformly excellent. Every solo passage was well played, with clarinet and bassoon solos in the opening movement and horn solos in both the first movement and the trio in the third movement Minuet standing out particularly. Laredo is to be congratulated for his work in moulding a technically proficient orchestra in so short a time, and even more so for evoking from them such a joyful and exuberant interpretation of the Eighth Symphony.

I had been anxiously awaiting Leon Fleisher’s performance of Brahms’s D minor piano concerto ever since this season’s Carnegie Hall schedule was announced. His unsurpassed Brahms recordings of a half-century ago – the Handel Variations and Opus 39 Waltzes in 1956, and the first and second concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958, and 1962, respectively – remain high on the list of my all-time favourite recordings. Soon afterward, however, focal dystonia, a neurological disorder, restricted Fleisher to the limited repertoire for the left hand, depriving the listening public of his full talents for over 30 years. The development of a new treatment enabled him to resume two-handed playing beginning in the mid-1990s, and he has become increasingly active as a recitalist and soloist, as well as continuing his career as a conductor and teacher. Earlier this season, Fleisher gave a solo recital at Carnegie Hall and, in two appearances at Avery Fisher Hall, he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.12 – once with a chamber ensemble during last summer’s “Mostly Mozart season” and again (adding Hindemith) at the end of November with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic.

But Brahms’s D minor concerto would be quite another matter: a test of Fleisher’s readiness to take on once again one of the most challenging and towering works in the piano literature, with which he had enjoyed great youthful success. Fleisher clearly passed that test!

Of course, this performance was not a replication of Fleisher’s milestone recording. After all, Laredo and his youthful cohort, however excellent, are not Szell and the Clevelanders. Nor, for that matter, is Fleisher the same pianist as the brash young soloist on that recording of this great orchestral work by Brahms, who himself was only 25 when he performed it at its premiere. Although Fleisher is now 78 years of age, he has retained much of his youthful enthusiasm for the D minor concerto, tempering it with a conception of the work that reflected his artistic maturity, developed over a half-century as performer and teacher.

Playing the highly demanding score with confident facility and (even if not completely note-perfect) with accuracy, Fleisher delivered an exciting and powerful performance that conveyed the chilling drama of the Maestoso opening movement, the lyrical qualities of the Adagio and the energy of the concluding Rondo. Fleisher’s tempos are now a bit slower than on his 1958 recording, with each movement running about one minute longer, but the music never dragged, nor did it lose any of its power or vitality, thanks also to the excellence of Laredo’s conducting and the orchestra’s playing.

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