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Friday, December 7, 2012

Concert Review: 100 Nights of Fun and Games

André Watts celebrates a Philharmonic milestone.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
André Watts. Photo by Steve J. Sherman © CM Artists.
On Thursday night, the pianist André Watts made his one hundredth appearance with the New York Philharmonic. The program, which featured the soloist playing Rachmaninoff's well-loved Second Piano Concerto also marked the second appearance of an exciting young conductor, Juraj Valčuha, who is giving his first set of subscription concerts this weekend at Avery Fisher Hall.

Let's flash back for a moment, to Jan. 1, 1963. The Philharmonic was in a crisis. Leonard Bernstein had just learned that Glenn Gould had cancelled due to illness. The eccentric Canadian pianist was scheduled to perform Liszt's First Piano Concerto in a subscription concert. Bernstein turned to Mr. Watts, then 16, to play the solo part. Two weeks later, a repeat of the same concerto was broadcast on television, and an international concert career was launched.

Enough history. The Rachmaninoff work is well-known, from its distinctive opening of tolling bell-intervals to its famous main theme, later rewritten as a Sinatra ballad ("Full Moon and Empty Arms"). The bells open the piece played by the soloist's left hand long before the orchestra enters. This doleful sound that evokes the composer's love of Russian church music. Mr. Watts expanded on this idea in the first movement, letting loose a free-flowing stream of melodic ideas and good-natured musical argument with the orchestra.

The first big tune of this concerto comes in the second movement--which was actually the first part of the piece to be written. In this Adagio, Mr. Watts played the descending melody with a lyric, caressing touch, accompanied thoughtfully by the strings and woodwinds. He accomplished the leap into the fast section effortlessly, driving the bass of the piano with impressive left hand technique. The finale, which bursts forth in the "Full Moon" theme allowed the soloist to engage in a bravura technical display that never veered from the central melodic thread.

Mr. Valčuha chose excerpts from three German operas to frame the Rachmaninoff work. The program opened with the Overture to Weber's Oberon, an opera celebrated for its magical music and derided for its ridiculous libretto. Those plot convolutions were a non-factor here, as audience attention focused on the gorgeous horn-call (played here by Philip Myers) and the enthusiasm of this young conductor.

The second half of the program featured two potpourris, assembled by Richard Strauss from two of his  operas. The Symphonic Fantasia on Die Frau Ohne Schatten boils the bones of this massive fairy tale to create a showpiece that can challenge the players of any fine orchestra. Like its progenitor opera, the Fantasia (created by the composer in 1946) requires huge orchestral resources. It is infrequently heard--and these are the first Philharmonic performances since a concert in 1954.

The complex percussion requirements and strenuous brass parts (particularly for the horns and tubas) came across with something of the intent of the breath-taking original. The main three-note theme rang out as a hammer blow, and the final brass chorales elevated the listener to stratospheric heights. Also compelling: the strings' warm performance of the Act I intermezzo and the elegant writing for harp and glockenspiel that evokes faerie magic in this convoluted opera.

The concert ended with Strauss' Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. This includes the rumbustious Act I Prelude, the "Presentation of the Rose", the "Mit Mir" waltz (sung by Baron Ochs in Act II) and the long lyric lines of the final Trio and Duet. The Philharmonic tore into the piece with enthusiasm in a a performance that emphasized the clarity of Strauss' orchestral writing and the wit in the waltz rhythms that dance gently on the edge of parody in the big Act II theme. The final section was led with raw energy by Mr. Valčuha. He underlined the sly Johann Strauss quote in the last few bars, (the "laughing chorus" from Die Fledermaus) that the later Strauss inserted as a musical joke.
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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.