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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Concert Review: The Thirty-Year Itch

Bernard Haitink returns to the New York Philharmonic
Bernard Haitink makes a point. Photo © CSO Resound Classics
When Bernard Haitink last conducted the New York Philharmonic, the compact disc had just been invented. Ronald Reagan was president, and the orchestra was completing a transition from the experimentation of the Pierre Boulez regime to a more conservative direction under Zubin Mehta.

This week, the Dutch conductor returned to the podium in Avery Fisher Hall for the first time in thirty years. For his return, Mr. Haitink chose a pair of conventional works that are not too frequently played by this orchestra. The concert opened with Strauss' tone poem Don Quixote followed by Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral.

Mr. Haitink is now 82, and celebrating his fifth decade as a professional conductor. He led the band with vigor, conducting both works with sure hands, a quick baton, and a steady, light-footed approach to the music. His conducting remains pristine and precise, drawing a warm, balanced quality of sound, bringing out the very best from this fine orchestra.

Don Quixote is essentially a cello concerto blended with a tone poem. Strauss casts this noble instrument (played here by Philharmonic principal Carter Brey) as the mad, chivalric knight. Principal violist Cynthia Phelps took the part of Sancho Panza, her lines doubled with a tenor tuba. Like Cervantes' great novel, the tone poem has an episodic structure. It takes a skilled hand to make the work hang together.

Strauss contrasts the virtuoso solo parts with masterful orchestration, depicitng the good Don's actions against villains real and imagined. The complex brass parts create the aural illusion of spinning windmill blades, bleating sheep, and the good citizens of Spain, who the Don faces off with in the interests of his honor. Mr. Brey and Ms. Phelps embodied the protagnist with virtuosic playing, engaging in witty musical dialogue with Mr. Haitink and Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow.

It could be argued that Beethoven's Sixth is the great-grandfather of all tone poems. Beethoven expanded this symphony to five movements, and assigned short titles to each. With some influence from the illustrative writing of Haydn and the opera overtures of Mozart, this was the first piece of program music. The Pastoral paved the way for the Romantic movement that breathed its last with Strauss' death.

Mr. Haitink took the opening Allegro (subtitled "Cheerful Impressions on Arriving in the Countryside") at a brisk, tempo that sacrificed none of the idyllic qualities that are central to this music. The slow "Scene by the Brook" had some gorgeous playing from the cellos, led by Mr. Brey, restored to his place leading the section. Flautist Robert Langevin and oboist Liang Wang were perfect "birds" in the movement's final secton, worthy of a Messiaen sketch.

Thankfully, the orchestra chose to take the repeat in the "Merry Dance of Country Folk", slamming into the "Storm" without pausing for breath. The chugging strings and howling (wood)winds gave way to a serene horn-call. This was the finale, the "Shepherd's Song" played with deep, almost religious meaning and a gorgeous line from the principal horn. As the melody was tossed from section to section, it teased the development of a gorgeous fugue. Mr. Haitink's country excursion ended a satisfying final two chords, a sonorous ending to this profound work.
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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.