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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Concert Review: The Fiddle in the Bullpen

Gil Shaham steps in with the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen 
Off the bench: violinist Gil Shaham.
Photo by Boyd Hagen.

There was nothing conventional about Wednesday night's concert by the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the first of two appearances by this venerable American ensemble this week. 

To start with, there was a last minute program change.

The e-mail came at 10am from the Carnegie Hall press office. The pianist Yefim Bronfman was ill. His replacement would be violinist Gil Shaham. The music would still be Brahms: the Violin Concerto. 

When you factor in a lack of rehearsal time and the impromptu nature of the first half the eveningm this was still a compelling performance. Mr. Shaham was  at home in this music, grooving on the sounds made by the first violins when he wasn't playing, and spinning sweet melodies over the rich orchestral texture. The violinist brought athleticism and musicianship to the vast musical arches of the opening movement, supported firmly by Mr. Welser-Möst.

The central slow movement allowed conductor and soloist to indulge in Brahms' gift for a melodic line, as the violin wove in and out of the orchestra.  The final Allegro giocoso featured Mr. Shaham leaping into Brahms' difficult cadenzas. These were written in collaboration with the composer's friend, the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim. The results were electric. When the concerto ended, the soloist clasped hands, first with Cleveland concertmaster William Preucil and then with Mr. Welser-Möst. All three men looked relieved.

The second half of the evening was as programmed, but proved more challenging for the audience. It started with the New York premiere of Magica Lanterna, a 2008 piece by current Carnegie Hall composer-in-residence Kaija Saariaho. 

Like the old magic lanterns (an early kind of film projector) that inspired this piece, Ms. Saariaho's work continually shifts in tempo. Its three movements draw inspiration from the films of Ingmar Bergman, attempting to paint the colors and sounds of the silver screen with droning themes in the woodwinds and strings.

The music shifts, accelerates and slows again in gentle curves, drawing the listener gradually into its complex sound-world. Words (drawn from the dialogue of Bergman films) are whispered through the hollow tubes of the woowinds. Eerily, the horn players chant "Licht" ("light") over and over.

The last section of Magica Lanterna was more aggressive, with percussion and piano combining to create crashing, clashing sounds, beats without rhythms. The final pages return to the magic sound-world of the opening, as the woodwinds and violins surgem soar briefly amd then quietly, slowly fade to black. 

Dmitri Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony was written in 1939 as a hasty replacement for a planned symphonic cantata celebrating Lenin. The result is a short, acerbic work that seems to reflect its composer's bitterness at Stalin's artistic purges. The three movements seem willfully arranged in the "wrong" musical order, underpinning the composer's satiric intent. 

Shostakovich opens his Sixth with a long, slow dirge, the sound of exiles on their one-way trip to the gulags of Siberia. The music is a preview forhis later symphonies of the 1950s (particularly the 11th) and is very Russian in its character and rhythm. Long, elegaic lamentations from the English horn and flute bookend the movement, which limped slowly, carefully along as if the music had just been beaten by Stalin's thugs.

The following Allegro seems to overcompensate with wild, kinetic rhythms and mock heroics from the heavy brass. The final movement is a galloping rondo that apes Rossini's William Tell Overture--a bit of operatic gallows humor. Mr. Welser-Möst and his orchestra presented this piece with a straight face, making the composer's wry writing even funnier.
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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.