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Monday, October 29, 2012

Concert Review: Horns of Plenty

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts Mozart and Mahler.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The man with the horn: Philip Myers
On Friday afternoon, the Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the New York Philharmonic in a concert that focused squarely on the orchestra's famous horn section. This was the second concert to feature second program of Mr. Frühbeck's two weeks at Avery Fisher Hall this season, pairing lighter works by Mozart with Mahler's First Symphony.

With the Serenata Notturna, the Philharmonic players sounded much more at ease for Mr. Frühbeck then they had in the orchestra's previous Mozart concert this season. The Serenata borrows ideas from baroque music, pitting a small "Salzburg quartet" (two violins, viola and double bass) antiphonally against the rest of the orchestra.

Conducting from his customary stool, the 79-year old Mr. Frühbeck brought out the wit and good humor in this three-movement Serenade. Particularly entertaining: the last movement with its abrupt, seemingly random changes of phrase and tempo, its whiplash changes designed to trick the ear, and its virtuoso parts for the Salzburg quartet, whose contrast against the main orchestra is a forerunner of the Act I finale from Don Giovanni.

The orchestra was then joined by principal horn Philip Myers, the hulking, bald brass player whose dulcet tone and controlled power are a trademark of so many Philharmonic performances. For this performance of the Horn Concerto No. 3, Mr. Myers chose to play his own cadenzas, which included (at one point) an entertaining reference to Siegfried's Horn Call from Wagner's Ring.

Following intermission, Mr. Myers took his place at the left end of the horn section. The performance of any Mahler symphony is an occasion for the Philharmonic, who seem to relish the opportunity to play the major works of their late music director. This performance of the First Symphony was no exception.

Mr. Frühbeck's leadership of the symphony displayed his own, definite ideas about the work, although none of his idiosyncracies were to its detriment. The conductor took a very fast tempo with the opening movement, producing great clarity of expression in the low strings and woodwinds in addition to the celebratory fanfares of the brass. He also made certain "operatic" phrases buried in this movement clear, including an amusing reference to Act II of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel that most conductors miss.

Surprisingly, the dance movement was taken at a slow pace, emphasizing the lumbering fiddles and the delicate gavotte of oboe and clarinet over the galumphing beat. The funeral march (based famously on the tune Frère Jacques) was child-like yet filled with a sense of celebratory wonder in the brief, frenzied dance for strings and winds that made up its middle section.

The heavyweight finale of the First Symphony is treacherous, thanks to the long exposition and repeat of the symphony's last major musical idea. Under Mr. Frühbeck, this massive double arch of sound was strong and firm, with the orchestra playing enthusiastically through the repeat. At the end of the movement, the horns are directed to lift the bells of their instruments, and even stand up. However, with the mighty sound issuing from the back of the stage no such theatrics were needed.
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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.