Orchestra of St Luke’s/Donald Runnicles at Carnegie Hall (26 February)

“Children of the Epoch” (Wislawa Szymborska)

“The Georgics” – Book 1 selections (Virgil)

Sarabanda in Memoriam [World premiere]

“From a German War Primer” (Bertold Brecht)


“September 1, 1939” (W.H. Auden)

Concerto funèbre

“Everyone Sang” (Siegfried Sassoon)

Symphony No. 9 in E flat, Op.70

Vladimir Spivakov (violin)

Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Donald Runnicles

Readings by Sam Waterston

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 26 February, 2004
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

“Some of the most powerful music of our time was written in response to the most cataclysmic events,” says Donald Runnicles, who in this Carnegie Hall performance led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a vibrantly performed program of four compelling works composed between 1939 and 2003.

The musical pieces – interspersed with understated readings by actor Sam Waterston of poems and texts by Auden, Brecht, Virgil and others – were for the most part vibrantly performed.

The musical program opened with the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sarabanda in Memoriam, composed in 2002-03 as an elegy to the horrors of ’9/11’. It’s a reworking of the second movement of Kernis’s String Quartet No.2 (musica instrumentalis), for which the composer received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. The music in this new version for string orchestra is virtually the same as in the original. Two strands of slow, mournful music – the first starts with a solo cello and moves on through solo viola and violin – are divided from each other by extremely fast, more expressionistic music. In a program note Kernis describes the revised version as “more public in sonic mass and scope”. The work nevertheless displays an intimate use of solo strings that effectively contrasts with the larger mass of string sounds.

In contrast to his vibrant and passionate reading of the Sarabanda, Runnicles’s approach to Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings was more restrained. The playing, so moving and eloquent in the piece by Kernis, seemed less committed and more detached in Strauss’s ruminative work.

Written in response to the Allied bombings of Dresden and Weimar near the end of World War II, Metamorphosen is a threnody for all that had been lost. The title is somewhat misleading. It seems to suggest thematic development, but nothing of the kind actually occurs in the work. Although rich in contrapuntal textures, the thematic material remains fundamentally unchanged from start to finish. The title is actually a tribute to Goethe, who to Strauss symbolized an older, more humane German culture that had been destroyed. Strauss took the title from Goethe’s scientific study, Metamorphosis of Plants, a pre-Darwinian attempt to describe unit and continuity in nature. Strauss also pays homage to another giant of an older, more humane German culture: in the final bars he quotes the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Runnicles’s tempo for this dark, somber work was broad. It is a difficult piece to shape and Runnicles’s less than fully committed approach never really succeeded in conveying the profound grief and despair intended by Strauss.

The most impressive piece on the program was Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre, played with incisive conviction by Vladimir Spivakov. This performance of Hartmann’s lamentation against the 1938 Munich agreement stood out on several counts. Though highly respected in Europe, the music of Hartmann is still not very well known in the United States. It was especially gratifying to have the opportunity to hear what is probably Hartmann’s best-known piece performed with such dignity and poignant phrasing. It was not only the most emotionally resonant piece on the program, but also the best performed. Spivakov and Runnicles infused Hartmann’s occasionally jagged lines with unexpected lyricism, with the violinist displaying extraordinary purity of tone and ease of technique.

The program ended with a warmly expressive reading of Shostakovich’s sly and witty Ninth Symphony. Written at the end of World War II, when most people expected a grand, triumphant piece celebrating Stalin’s recent victory, Shostakovich instead delivered a short, tightly-packed work in a consciously lighter style that puzzled many listeners. In this performance Runnicles and the orchestra walked the fine line between gaiety and seriousness with acrobatic skill. I was especially impressed with the woodwinds, in particular the piccolo playing at the end of the second movement, and the clarinets in the third. All in all, this was an expertly realized performance.

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