Posts Tagged ‘Leonidas Kavakos’

Where does the Concertgebouw Stand?

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

by Sedgwick Clark


Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its current music director, Mariss Jansons, stopped by Carnegie Hall last week (2/13 and 14) for a pair of concerts to celebrate the ensemble’s 125th anniversary. They were a great success, as always, with everyone on my aisle burbling over its glorious sound and virtuosity.

No doubt whatsoever, it is a great orchestra, and for many of my over-40 years of hearing it in concert it was my favorite European orchestra. But the dark, burnished sonority of yore, cultivated to such full-toned splendor during Bernard Haitink’s tenure (1963-1988), was eviscerated by Riccardo Chailly’s superficial musicianship (1988-2004). And the turnover of orchestral musicians that occurred internationally in the last two decades of the 20th century brought forth a new generation of players who pride clarity over rich, bass-oriented textures. The only orchestra I know that has managed to retain its early-1970s persona resides in Philadelphia, and it remains to be seen what effect its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will have.

So what effect has Jansons had on the RCO? While one can’t deny his expertise on the podium, I don’t find much personality in his conducting—of the Austro-German repertoire anyway. He was at his best in the first concert, in his accompaniment to Leonidas Kavakos’s kaleidoscopic brilliance in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Still, it was little more than an expert rendering of the score. Listen to soloist Zoltán Székely and the Concertgebouw in the live world premiere recording under Willem Mengelberg in 1939 for those little nudges of temperament I missed with Jansons or the 1958 Stern/Bernstein/New York Philharmonic studio recording (in its judiciously remixed Prince Charles Edition reissue) for no-holds-barred emotional drama.

Recalling Jansons’ devastating Mahler Sixth Symphony a few years ago on LSO LIVE, I looked forward to the Mahler First, which followed intermission. But despite the orchestra’s powerful, pinpoint playing, the Wayfarer themes didn’t sing, the third movement’s Parodie sections were poker-faced, and in general the slow music was impatient and tempo changes were exaggerated. A disappointment.

Little need be said about the next evening’s Strauss Death and Transfiguration and Bruckner Seventh. Over the weekend I pulled out my recordings of Strauss’s own 1926 Staatskapelle Berlin recording, the 1942 Philadelphia and 1952 NBC Toscaninis, 1960 Monteux/San Francisco, and 1983 Haitink/Concertgebouw of the former, and the 1951Furtwängler and 1974 Karajan, both with Berlin, of the latter. All were different, all sublime in their individual ways. Jansons sped up where Strauss marks Sehr breit (“Very broad”) for the transfiguration theme and sailed through the Wagner tuba threnody after the Bruckner’s second-movement climax. Inexplicable.

David Hamilton (1935-2013)

Another of my heroes is gone. David Hamilton, 78, died at home on February 19 after a long illness. He reviewed records and wrote occasional features for High Fidelity when I began building my record collection in college, and I relied on his insights into 20th-century music, especially that of Stravinsky. His initials at the end of a review meant “must read,” even if I had never heard of the composer.

David was a Princeton grad (A.B., 1956; M.F.A., music history, 1960), where he was the music and recording librarian, 1961-65. He was assistant music editor and then music editor at W.W. Norton, 1965-74, then became music critic of the Nation in 1968 and wrote for many publications during his lifetime. I had the pleasure of editing (if that’s the word, for his copy was immaculate) articles of his at Keynote and Musical America. His Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia (1987) is one of my most frequently used reference books. For many years, he was producer of historical Met Opera broadcasts and wrote notes for the company’s program booklet.

One of the benefits of working in the classical division of Philips and Mercury Records in the early 1970s was that I got to know many writers who were formative in my musical taste. It’s easy to remember my first lunch with David: We were each going to hear Boulez conduct the Philharmonic that evening in what turned out to be one of the great Mahler Sixths I ever heard, and with a grin he pulled out the Mahler Critical Edition score from his briefcase.

We often saw each other at Boulez concerts. The conductor’s Rug Concerts were nearly always sold out, and long lines of the converted would form to get the best seats on the floor. I always arrived early and when the doors opened would storm up the escalator as the ushers shouted, “No running allowed.” (Shades of elementary school!) When David was there, I would save him room. But one night, an all-Schoenberg Rug Concert was only about half full. I remarked after a striking performance of Pierrot Lunaire that it was too bad it hadn’t sold out. “Well, look at it this way,” he replied. “Have you ever seen so many people at a Schoenberg concert?”

David succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, one of those ironies that we who remain find so baffling in those of such extraordinary intellects. His long-time friend Sheila Porter was with him the afternoon before he died and told me that she and his nurse chose James Levine’s Met recording of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro for him to hear.

Korngold replaces Golijov; Double-Portrait of Nancarrow and Vivier

Friday, May 4th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

While Berlin can boast its share of world premieres, the cancellation of Oswaldo Golijov’s Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos and the Philharmonic last month dealt a blow to what would have been one of the most exciting events of the season. Even though the announcement came as little surprise given that he failed to finish the work for its originally-intended Los Angeles premiere in May of last year, the timing was particularly inauspicious in the wake of an internet debate over the allegation that the composer borrowed too heavily for his orchestral piece “Siderus,” performed by the Eugene Symphony in March.

As proven by Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which replaced Golijov’s mysteriously missing piece in a program flanked by Ravel and Strauss, borrowing from oneself may be a better bet. Korngold, an Austro-Hungarian-born composer whose talent is considered by some to have been in a class with Mozart, wisely left the continent in 1934 to write for Hollywood upon the invitation of fellow Austrian director Max Reinhardt and continued to do so through the end of the Second World War. His Concerto, marking a return to absolute music, recycles melodies from his own film scores to unique effect.

The soaring opening theme is lifted from the film Another Dawn (1937, the same year in which Korngold originally drafted the concerto) and the closing draws from another Warner Brothers film, The Prince and the Pauper (also 1937). Kavakos, seen with Gustavo Dudamel at the podium of the Philharmonie on April 26, opened the piece with a silken tone and expressive line that left little to be desired, yet he revealed an unfortunate tendency to rush as he launched into the music’s rapid, climbing passages, sweeping Dudamel and the orchestra with him through what is intended as a Moderato movement.

The dreamy inner Andante movement was kept transparent and melting, although Kavakos suffered from slight intonation problems through these slower passages. The violinist brought irreproachable technical virtuosity to the daunting runs and stratospheric flageolets of the Allegro finale—in which his rushed energy was less conspicuous than in the opening movement—yet his studied approach detracted from the piece’s dramatic nature. This is after all a score that calls John Williams to mind as easily as Zemlinsky; simply opening his body to the audience with more thespian poise would have made all the difference.

Following the concerto was another work with strong cinematic associations ever since Stanley Kubrick adopted its fanfare for his classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rising trumpet theme and rumbling double basses that open Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra has become almost a cliché, yet Dudamel and the Berlin Philharmonic showed how thrilling a live performance of this music can be. The rich, full-bodied strings and gravitas underscored the authority this orchestra still brings to German repertoire despite the international direction Sir Simon Rattle has introduced. The fluidity with which individual players communicate—it is often said that they are a bunch of soloists who happen to sit in an orchestra together—was made particularly clear though the fugal development in “Von der Wissenschaft.” Dudamel did not let the energy slack for an instant. Concert Master Daniel Stabwara brought just the right Slavic grace to the waltz melody of the penultimate episode, “Das Tanzlied“.

Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a suite based on children’s fairy tales, opened the program on a less gripping note. Despite impeccably pure textures (two horns provide the only brass in the scoring) and elegant melodic flow, Dudamel did not given enough accent to the dramatic vignettes that emerge within these dreamy episodes. The exchange between ‘beauty and the beast’ in the waltz movement—culminating in prancing winds and a brooding bass bassoon—was nearly lost in the mirage-like texture. The strings were also not at their most even in the closing pianissimi of the final “Jardin féerique”; both Stabwara and Dudamel could have led with a firmer hand.

Laboratorium makes Berlin debut in Nancarrow and Vivier

Reaffirming the German capital’s embrace of curious programming, Deutschland Radio hosted the Swiss chamber ensemble Laboratorium with the local conductor Manuel Nawri in a ‘double-portrait’ entitled Ferne Welten (Distant Worlds) exploring works by Conlon Nancarrow and Claude Vivier. The chamber music hall of the Philharmonie was disturbingly empty at the opening concert on May 1, which may have to do with the fact that the event was only publicized with small posters, or that the composers—both Einzelgänger (‘mavericks’ or ‘loners’ depending on your translation), in the words of moderator Holger Hettinger—have yet to enter a wider vocabulary. As Alex Ross points out on The Rest is Noise, attention to the centennial of Nancarrow’s birth this year has been surprisingly scarce.

Empty seats aside, it was refreshing to see the young musicians, who met at the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2004, champion Nancarrow in inventive arrangements of his studies for player piano (written by American ensemble member and trombonist Patrick Crossland). The most effective was Study Nr.7, scored for strings, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, marimba and piano, capturing the frenzied quality and rich polyrhythmic patterns of the original work while assigning much of the jazziness to bass and cello. The brief Study Nr.14 was played in a quartet of bass, cello, viola and violin—almost drawing too much attention to fragmented nature of Nancarrow’s melodies in this slower piece. The tango- and flamenco-inspired rhythms of Study Nr.6, scored for brass, percussion, and strings, were more dance-like and less biting than in the original conception for player piano (which can be heard here).

Nancarrow of course also wrote for humans sometimes, and the program featured two of his three Canons for Ursula (dedicated to the pianist Ursula Oppens). These are not canons in the traditional sense, rather an interplay of the same melody at different speeds. The works include rapid, mechanized patterns that lend live performances a somewhat creepy quality, yet Nancarrow also gives us glimpses into his rebellious personality, such as the mad walking bass in Canon A, or the playful sweep of the hand across the keyboard in Canon B. Artur Avanesov gave a tight, focused performance.

Much as Nancarrow fled the U.S. for Mexico to pursue an independent set of ideals, the Canadian Vivier had an uprooted, nomadic lifestyle that some trace back to the fact that he was adopted at age three. Pulau Dewata (‘Island of the Gods’), performed in Laboratorium’s own arrangement for oboe, trumpet, trombone, marimba, violin, violin, cello and two melodicas, is an homage to the composer’s séjour in Bali, with Reichian-like textures that were inspired by Vivier’s time with a Gamelan orchestra.

The program opened with his theatrical chamber work Greeting Music, in which the players walk on-and offstage “like zombies,” according to Vivier’s instructions. Grief and alienation lurk beneath deceptively simple thirds and octaves, with grating textures such as a scrubbing cello and scraping against a gong. When the cellist (Markus Hohti) laughs mockingly, the listener is infected with a sense of malaise. The ensemble also performed the ceremonial yet ghostly Et je reverrai cette ville étrange, which explores the feelings of returning to a well-known place after having not been there for a long stretch of time. Vivier opens and closes the piece with a meditative melody; in the inner movements, suspended textures of imperceptible strings, piano, celeste and covered trumpet yield to ethereal pentatonic.

Although Vivier forged his own path in a journey of self-discovery through the Eastern world, only to end up tragically murdered in a Paris apartment, it is hard to place his music in the same category as Nancarrow. Whether or not one is drawn to the stubborn persistence with which the player piano prince dedicated himself to what is now an obsolete instrument, few composers have shown the same degree of defiance toward surrounding trends and developed such an unmistakably individual yet highly complex language. Perhaps it was this led Ligeti to declare Nancarrow the “most important living composer” in 1980.