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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Concert Review: The Lion's Return

Kurt Masur conducts Brahms.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Kurt Masur.
On Saturday night, Avery Fisher Hall was packed to the rafters to hear the New York Philharmonic kick off the third concert in its season-long celebration of Brahms. More importantly, this concert marked the New York return of former Music Director Kurt Masur, still tall and aristocratic but now visibly frail beneath his trademark Chinese silk conductor's jacket.

After years of visible hand tremors (that somehow never interfered with his conducting) a fall last season in Paris and several cancellations, Mr. Masur finally admitted to having Parkinson's Disease this year. It has now accelerated. The conductor now prefers a specially designed podium, equipped with metal rails he can grip, to control the tremors while he conducts.

In his walk to the podium, Mr. Masur stumbled forward. The audience drew a sharp, collective breath. However, the conductor was all right--he recovered his balance and took his place in front of the orchestra. Adjusting himself for a line of sight with the soloists (violinist Glenn Dicterow and cellist Alicia Weilerstein) and concertmaster Sheryl Staples, he gave the first downbeat of the Double Concerto, Brahms' last orchestral work.


Written as part of an effort to heal a personal rift between Brahms and his longtime friend violinist Joseph Joachim, the Double Concerto is the least performed of Brahms' major orchestral works. It is a dense, complex piece, requiring a violinist and cellist who can work together tightly, as members of a chamber ensemble would. The two solo lines trade back and forth and intertwine, with one instrument continuing the soliloquies into a higher or lower register. It is no easy feat.

For these performances, Ms. Weilerstein was a welcome substitute for the ill Carter Brey. She and Mr. Dicterow formed a smooth tandem, easily tossing the melodic line back and forth before playing as one. And although the faces playing in the Philharmonic have changed somewhat since Mr. Masur's day, his old orchestra responded with deep-toned, able support.

Mr. Masur's own skill as a Brahmsian was on full display in the well-loved Second Symphony. This remains the most familiar of Brahms' four and one of the conductor's signiature pieces. Here, the ear marveled at the rich, thick orchestral texture, expertly cued and balanced with the string slightly forward and rich, burnished tones in the brass.

The Adagio was taken slowly, with a deep, musing tone from the cellos spinning out Brahms' central melodic idea. The woodwinds came to the fore in the lilting Allegretto, with the skilled principal players making their little section leaders in precise playing and heartfelt tone. Finally, the last movement resounded with warmth and good feelings. Mr. Masur steadied himself as he conducted, his batonless hands molding sound and making magic again at his former home.
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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.