Posts Tagged ‘Franz Welser-Möst’

A Reluctant Blogger Joins the Fray

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

My publisher made me do this.

I’ve always been leery of blogs, from the disgusting sound of the word to the colossal self-importance of the act. Still, I admit to a good read and insight courtesy of bloggers Alex Ross and Alan Rich, and I’m sure I’d find others out there if I took the time. I am told I needed a title. Among friends’ suggestions are “Musical Rants and Raves,” “Bloviation on a Theme by Sedgwick,” “Symphony in E Flatulence,” “Why I Left Muncie,” “High Forehead, Low Brow.” No—too many notes, Mozart. The publisher wants my name in the title, but I can’t hack that. (I’m still working on it.) My only diary experience lasted a few months after I arrived in New York City. Come my first real job, as a press department gofer at The Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, I no longer had time for such things. Samuel Pepys I am not.

I knew since at least the eighth grade that I would make my life in New York. I wanted to be a movie critic. My father was born in New York, but after the war my mother wanted to raise her family in her home town in Indiana. We vacationed in the Mohawk Valley each summer, so the move after college was as normal as blueberry pie—or Carnegie Deli strawberry cheesecake. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. For 40 years I have had the inestimable opportunity to savor all the arts in what I consider the center of the world. Perhaps my enthusiasm for my adopted city’s offerings will ring some others’ chimes.

Two young conductors. I got here in time for Leonard Bernstein’s final season as Philharmonic music director, 1968-69. His concerts and recordings have colored my tastes more than that of any other musician—no surprise, my being a child of his Young People’s Concerts. Nearly 20 years after his death, I walk out after many concerts wondering what Bernstein would have done. Obviously, I’m not alone. The night before going on vacation three weeks ago (1/14), I heard young Venezuelan hotshot (and Bernstein aficionado) Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Mahler Fifth at the Philharmonic. It was a young man’s performance, all drama and climaxes and exciting as all get out, and not even St. Martin’s balmy rays could expunge the memory of that Fifth. He may well be Bernstein reincarnated: all over the podium, barely containing his excitement, and sharing an instinctive sense of rubato that seems to have escaped most conductors and soloists of the last half-century. The orchestra played as if possessed, and then the damnedest thing happened: He comes out for bows, the audience goes wild, and the players sit there stone-faced like Eurydice. Eventually some of them can’t help breaking rank, smiling and tapping their bows. Why? I didn’t see him, but I’ll bet my blog that the New Yorkers’ new music director, Alan Gilbert, was in the house, and the New York Philharmonic wasn’t about to display any favoritism for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new music director. (Both conductors take over their new orchestras in September.) Gilbert had just introduced his new season programming three days before on the Fisher Hall stage. He’s a child of the Philharmonic. His parents were violinists in the orchestra (his father is retired), and young Alan heard Bernstein lead the Phil often. He’s a much different animal than Dudamel—earnest, laid back, perhaps even a little embarrassed at being in the limelight—and the contrast will provide press fodder on both coasts. He’ll be a breath of fresh air after Lorin Maazel’s unadventurous programming . . . if he’s allowed. He wants to encourage young contemporary composers at the Phil, and there are two concerts of world premieres scheduled—safely performed at small venues so that the usual audience suspects won’t look so lonely in Fisher. The other season treat is a three-week Stravinsky festival conducted by Valery Gergiev. I can’t wait! But, and it’s a big but, most of the subscription programs are awfully careful.

Artists of the Year. Last week (2/5) I took Charles Rosen (MA’s 2008 Instrumentalist of the Year) to Zankel Hall to hear Pierre-Laurent Aimard (MA’s 2007 Instrumentalist) juxtapose excerpts of Bach’s “Art of Fugue” with piano works by Elliott Carter (MA’s 1993 Composer). It’s hard to avoid “our” artists these days! February is quite the month for this. Like Aimard, Charles recorded the “Art of Fugue” and most of Carter’s piano music—in fact, he was one of the pianists who commissioned Carter’s “Night Fantasies”—and it was a treat to hear his comments on the works and watch his fingers mime certain passages. On Monday (2/2) at Carnegie I heard an extraordinary recital by Christian Tetzlaff (MA’s 2005 Instrumentalist) and Leif Ove Andsnes—edge-of-seat performances of Brahms’s Third Violin/Piano Sonata and Schubert’s “Rondo brilliant” and hardly less impressive ones of Janácek and Mozart sonatas. Although I already had planned to attend, I was cued by Alan Rich’s blog (soi’ in his review of their LA performance of the same program the previous week: “This was a great evening: violin and piano without flash or schmaltz. . . .”

The Cleveland Orchestra played three concerts at Carnegie last week under Franz Welser-Möst (MA’s Conductor, 2003). I have never heard this most European of American orchestras sound so sumptuous! For months I had looked forward to hearing Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” live (2/4) at last—remember its use in Kubrick’s “2001”?—and it didn’t disappoint. The Carnegie Hall audience was absolutely quiet as W-M beat several “silent” bars at the end, as Ligeti requests; thank goodness he didn’t try that with a Philharmonic audience. Wagner’s “Wesendonck” Lieder featured ravishing pianissimos from soprano Measha Brueggergosman and a perfectly judged accompaniment. And what Strauss’s Technicolor “Alpine Symphony” lacked in drama, it thrilled in sheer tonal beauty. I see that Peter Davis (, 2/6) found the Ligeti a “quaint period piece,” and the soloist in the Wagner “underpowered and lacking firm support” as well as “overly fussy” interpretively. The Strauss “lacked panache and seemed excessively rushed,” he felt. I skipped the second concert, with Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. I don’t understand why conductors prefer this melodically barren tub-thumper to the far superior Fourth, Sixth, or Eighth. I had greatly anticipated Janácek’s glorious Glagolithic Mass on the third concert (2/7), but after a rather unsettled Mozart 25th and beautifully performed Debussy Nocturnes, W-M chose to play a recent version by Janácek scholar Paul Wingfield “that seeks to restore the composer’s original vision.” Seems that “numerous compromises . . . had been made to accommodate practical needs in the first performance. . . .” Well, maybe so, but on first hearing I found the changes highly disconcerting and deeply disappointing, despite fine playing, solo singing, and superbly solid work from the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. I was astonished to see no mention whatsoever of the different version in Jim Oestreich’s otherwise perspicacious review in the Times.

Political hypocrisy. Once again the Loyal Opposition is contesting money to the National Endowment for the Arts. Why can’t they accept that the arts generate billions annually, employ millions of Americans, and most importantly, teach kids that everyone has unique talents to offer the world? But no, they’re still equating all the arts with Andres Serrano’s supposedly blasphemous “Piss Christ” and the homoerotic Mapplethorpe photos that were so controversial two decades ago. And now, believe it or not, after eight years of kneejerk voting of billions for a questionable war that may eventually bankrupt the American economy, they’re feigning concern about the monetary legacy we’re leaving our grandchildren. They say the arts aren’t an immediate concern. Like education? The mind boggles.