In New York’s Concert Halls

by Sedgwick Clark

Atlanta Symphony/Spano

My broadest exit smiles so far this season occurred the same week at Carnegie Hall featuring programs with a chorus: the Philadelphia Orchestra and Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director) under Yannick Nézet-Seguin in Verdi’s Requiem on 10/23 and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Norman Mackenzie, director) under Robert Spano on 10/27.

The first, about which I enthused in this space on 10/25, is one of those pieces one simply cannot miss at Carnegie. The Atlanta program was equally enticing in its own way, a satisfying amalgam of works laced in jazz rhythms and irresistible melody: Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Ensemble was occasionally wayward in the Copland, but the two choral works were knockouts. If the Psalms lacked the composer’s manic energy, Spano’s spacious warmth offered numerous beauties in this most affecting of Bernstein’s concert works; the use of a countertenor (John Holiday) in the second-movement solo provided more vocal assurance than the prescribed boy sopranos I’ve heard, although one might argue that a certain innocence was lost. Best of all was the Belshazzar, in which Walton’s episodic structure was given welcome continuity without ever shortchanging the work’s pagan exhilaration. It completely surpassed a hectic affair in 1976 at Carnegie by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Georg Solti, the only other live performance I recall hearing. That this fine orchestra is confronting a $20 million deficit and that musician ranks will be reduced along with a 20 percent cut in salaries is shameful.

Cleveland Orchestra/ Welser-Möst

My word, the Cleveland Orchestra makes a beautiful sound under Franz Welser-Möst these days (11/13)! The downside is that I don’t recall ever hearing so many dropped programs and undefined thumps at a concert. W-M’s overly refined Beethoven Fourth was ho-hum. The Grosse fuge later in the program was much more involved. But it’s not really a “nice” piece, Franz, and I’m afraid the sumptuous Cleveland strings will pale in memory next to the electrifyingly precise Minnesota/ Vänskä earthshaker in March 2010. The gentlemanly rendering of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy at the close seemed positively perverse with such an interpretive engine available to him. I remember a Comissiona/Baltimore performance in the ’70s that blew the roof off of Carnegie; afterwards, as I raved about it to friends, my date interjected, “Gee, I wish you’d get that excited about me!”

Aimard’s Debussy and Schumann

I was surprised at how much this esteemed pianist went in for washes of color rather than clarity in Debussy’s Preludes, Book II (11/15). A pianist friend didn’t like it at all, and Zachary Woolfe in the Times leaned toward Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s Debussy program the week before. The latter not being one of my faves, I didn’t subject myself to his “freedom” of expression, but I did enjoy Aimard’s performances, even if a certain sameness crept in after awhile. (Admission: I think the Book I Preludes are more inspired and individual.) But Aimard’s reticent Schumann, while perhaps hewing to the letter of the score, doesn’t move me, and I think that inserting the five posthumous etudes in the middle of the piece makes it interminable. Play the five independently if you must (but they are still not top-drawer Schumann).

Adès’s Grey Tempest

With all the encomia over this Brit darling of the critics, Thomas Adès, I expected a new operatic masterpiece at its final performance this season (11/17). True to form, local reviewers raved en masse. But, great heavens, what a disappointment: colorless (Shakespeare?), dynamically squashed, melodically tepid. Would that Hurricane Sandy, which struck six days after this operatic tempest’s debut, had packed such a paltry punch! Give me an operatic treatment of MGM’s 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, based loosely on The Tempest, with Louis and Bebe Barron’s “electronic tonalities” for the music.

Perhaps my esteemed colleagues were taken with the Brittenisms scattered throughout (Midsummer Night’s Dream?). I spoke with one who, when challenged, said he might have gone overboard in his praise because he doesn’t want to discourage new opera at the Met. I’ll try again in the eventual revival and hope to be embarrassed by my comments herein. In the interim, Peter G. Davis’s informative and positive review on this Web site (10/25) may provide more than my visceral reaction.

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