Cymbals and Triangles on the Brain

by Sedgwick Clark

I’ve had cymbals and triangles on the brain. I was obsessed with them the other day because I had just heard the New York Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink play Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. The climax of the slow movement was punctuated by fortissimo cymbal and triangle (I’ll spare you talk about editions and how he intermingled Haas instrumental details with the purported use of Nowak), and the players assaulted the ear with unrestrained vengeance—crude, brittle, monochromatic, as sensuous as the screech of the subway downstairs. The players only did what most percussionists do when confronted with an ff sign, which is to create as much noise as possible until the conductor says to cool it. I hasten to add that in all other respects the performance was admirable and the audience gratifyingly silent. But why Haitink allowed the artillery to blast away with such violence at a moment of such transfigured release escapes me still.

The Mariinsky cymbals at the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall Tchaikovsky festival, which I rhapsodized about last week are still shimmering in my ears. Like the Curtis Institute of Music triangle in Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra back in February 1984 at the same venue, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that hauntingly musical sound. And from cymbals, no less!

Is it the player, the conductor, the instrument, or the hall who/that bears the most responsibility? I’d bet on the conductor. Leading the Mariinsky, as we all know, was Valery Gergiev, and at the head of Curtis’s student orchestra was Sergiu Celibidache, age 72, making his American debut. John Rockwell in the Times called the concert “about as revelatory an experience, both thrilling and thought-provoking, as this writer has encountered in 25 years of regular concert-going.” Googling John’s review last night, I see that he even referred approvingly to “the tiny ping of the triangle.” Celi, who was known to rehearse details without end, must have worked with his young player for hours, explaining patiently why less is infinitely more. That feathery ping resounded in Carnegie’s pre-renovation acoustic with unearthly beauty and color, a philosophical statement on its own.

Koussy and Springsteen

Note to the cynics among us: Did you see in (11/23) that Serge Koussevitzky’s 1940 recording of Roy Harris’s Third Symphony was selected along with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run for the 2012 Grammy Hall of Fame? Yes, there’s only one classical entry out of 25, but someone picked a great one.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

11/29 Metropolitan Opera House. Metropolitan Opera/Yannick Nézet-Seguin; Jonas Kaufmann (Faust), René Pape (Méphistophélès), Marina Poplavskaya (Marguerite). Gounod: Faust.

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