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Friday, October 21, 2011

Concert Review: Oh, What a Mountain!

Lorin Maazel ascends the Alpine Symphony.
The happy wanderer: former Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel.
Photo by Chris Lee, © 2009 New York Philharmonic.
On Friday morning, former New York Philharmonic music director led the orchestra in an assault on Richard Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie, as part of an all-Strauss program at Avery Fisher Hall. This is the second week of concerts featuring Mr. Maazel, marking the first time he has returned to the orchestra since stepping down in 2009.

The Alpine Symphony is Strauss' final tone poem, and one of his more obscure large-scale works. It is a huge composition, built in 22 miniature movements, spanning an hour and played without pause. Strauss wrote for a giant orchestra: eight horns, quadruple wind, two timpanists, 12 offstage brasses and exotic percussion. The subject: the vigorous ascent and descent of a formidable Bavarian alp. Like Strauss' earlier Also Sprach Zarathustra, this work was inspired by the writings of Nietzsche. It quotes Zarathustra several times, and also recycles a theme from Der Rosenkavalier.

Mr. Maazel took a leisurely approach to the lower slopes, leading the orchestra through sun-dappled forests, aurally visiting a waterfall and a meadow occupied by cows. The offstage brass (representing a hunting party) played from up in the third tier. Their horn-calls were at a surprisingly slow tempo, which made the cinematic effect  proved more distracting than anything else.

As the climbers traversed a glacier and approached the peak, the pace quickened. The climax of this piece takes place halfway through, a thrilling moment on the summit marked by a gigantic surge of the main theme, accompanied by a clash of cymbals. A lone, stammering oboe solo followed: the aural equivalent of a tiny red arrow stating "You are here."

Now that he was at the peak of the composition Mr. Maazel slowed down again to take in the view. A spectacular storm in the last sections of the work brought the full fury of the orchestra, complete with whooshing wind machine, droning organ and a sixteen-foot-long thunder sheet shaken by percussionist Christopher Lamb. The ending was far more quiet, a symmetrical return to the opening pages without the offstage horns.

After a pause at base camp (presumably for oxygen) the concert resumed with principal horn Philip Myers playing Strauss' First Horn concerto. Mr. Myers brought noble tone and delivery to this potent, proto-Mozartean concerto, written for Strauss' father when the budding composer was just 18. This is one of the young Strauss' first mature works, and a concert favorite of Mr. Myers.

Mr. Myers returned to his usual chair for Till Eulenspiegel, the famous Strauss tone poem about the cheeky rogue whose mischief inspired memorable orchestral writing. Represented by the horn and clarinet, Till ran roughshod over the orchestra. Mr. Maazel seemed to fence the air with his baton as the band played this evergreen work with their usual élan. The hanging of Till was brought off with drama and power, with the clarinet blowing a last raspberry.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.