Spring for Music II Highlights; Frühbeck’s Carmina

by Sedgwick Clark

The blockbuster of Carnegie Hall’s second Spring for Music festival last month was the second (!) performance this season of the rarely played, 70-minute piano concerto by the turn-of-the-20th-century piano virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni. It’s not a “great” piece, as one considers Beethoven’s Emperor great, but it’s a hoot and was stupendously negotiated on May 9 by the Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin and sympathetically accompanied by the New Jersey Symphony under Jacques Lacombe.

Alex Ross’s New Yorker review (January 9, 2012) of the earlier performance this season, by Piers Lane and the American Symphony under Leon Botstein, is necessary reading for anyone interested in the piece. He calls it “a wildly entertaining creation” and approvingly cites Bernard Holland’s loveable summation of the concerto–“a hymn to immoderation”–in his Times review of the work’s previous local performance, in 1989 at Carnegie. As fun as this garrulous example of late-Romantic mysticism is, however, its requirement of a men’s chorus in the finale will likely ensure its infrequency.

On the festival’s opening night, May 7, Hans Graf led the Houston Symphony in a well-drilled all-Shostakovich program. Houston was first to perform and record the Eleventh Symphony in the U.S., with Leopold Stokowski in 1958, so the work seemed a natural choice. But the Eleventh, composed in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, reworks popular and revolutionary prison songs to tedious length, especially in the first and third movement adagios. Only Rostropovich’s searing, expansive performance with the LSO ten years ago at Avery Fisher raised it above the level of film music in my experience. Also played was Shostakovich’s Anti-Formalist Rayok, a 20-minute, late-1950s satire of Soviet bureaucrats, written for private performance among friends. Perhaps one has to be Russian.

Advance word was strong on the English conductor Justin Brown and the Alabama Symphony. A promo DVD with his orchestra of the Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, was as fine a Bruckner Fifth as I’ve heard from any conductor alive today. His recently released Karlsruhe Mahler Ninth on Pan Classics, however, is astonishingly uninvolved. Brown has championed contemporary American music in Alabama, and on May 10 he led the New York premieres of two recent ASO commissions, the first of which made a bang-up concert opener. While composing Astrolatry, lifetime city dweller Avner Dorman actually ventured into the countryside at night for inspiration. To an impressive degree he has captured his newfound “awe of nature” in this glittering 14-minute piece. Less persuasive was Paul Lansky’s tinkly Shapeshifters for two pianos and orchestra. After intermission, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was well played but less-than-compelling interpretively. The Fourth or Eighth might have shown this team’s work to better advantage.

I had never heard Charles Ives’s unfinished Universe Symphony (“realized and completed by Larry Austin”), with which the Nashville Symphony closed the festival on May 12. The Universe is in the style of Central Park in the Dark, beginning quietly, building to a raucous climax, and then tapering off . . . but lasting four times as long (36 minutes), at least in the hands of Nashville’s Giancarlo Guerrero, a name new to me and, I assure you, quite an enthusiastic fellow. Personally, I’m content with Central Park. But the Nashville’s performance—beginning with the quietest pppppp imaginable—was sensational. Ives fans may look forward to next Spring, when Leonard Slatkin will bring the Detroit Symphony to Carnegie for all four (legitimate) Ives symphonies in one gulp!    

As before, the concerts were streamed live internationally by Classical 105.9 FM WQXR and attended by busloads of hometown concertgoers.

Frühbeck’s Carmina burana at the Phil

Carl Orff’s ability to set Carmina’s bawdy texts with vitality and memorable melodies has excited audiences for 75 years despite critical sniping at the work’s rhythmic simplicity. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Musical America’s Conductor of the Year for 2011, served it resoundingly well on June 1 with the New York Philharmonic, soprano Erin Morley, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Jacques Imbrailo, the Orfeón Pamplonén chorus, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Among many fine instrumental touches, Sandra Church’s slinky flute duet with Markus Rhoten’s perfectly balanced timpani in the Tanz was outstanding. Frühbeck’s 1965 New Philharmonia recording on EMI is still my favorite.

Selections from Manuel de Falla’s unfinished cantata, Atlántida, opened the concert.

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

6/14, Avery Fisher Hall, 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Erin Morley, soprano; Joshua Hopkins, baritone. Beethoven: Coriolan Overture. Korngold: Violin Concerto. Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 (Sinfonia espansiva).

6/20 Avery Fisher Hall, 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Emanuel Ax, piano; soloists and chorus. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22; Mass in C minor (Great).

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