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Monday, February 4, 2013

Concert Review: Peace, Love and Beethoven

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Daniel Barenboim. Photo © 2013 EMI Classics.
This past week at Carnegie Hall featured one of the most eagerly anticipated events of this young calendar year, four concerts by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded by the Israeli conductor in 1999, the orchestra is an assemblage of young musicians from Spain, Israel, Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries. Its goal: promoting peace, love and understanding between the peoples of the Holy Land through Western classical music.

For these concerts, Mr. Barenboim chose the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, which range from wry humor to inconsolable rage, ending in the profound, mystic choral finale of the Ode to Joy. This review is of Saturday performance, which featured the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, and the Sunday matinee with the Second and the Ninth.

Mr. Barenboim's conducting has been a matter of divided opinion over the course of a long podium career. Like his hero Wilhelm Furtwängler, Mr. Barenboim takes a loose, organic approach to the tempo of a piece, with the result of unusually fast or slow music-making. Occasionally he will bend and scoop the air, drawing a swell from a particular section, or point and thrust with his baton to indicate volume from a woodwind. Otherwise, he appeared almost nonchalant, leaning back and letting the orchestra do their jobs without vigorously beating time.

This leisurely approach was well suited to the first movement of the Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony, a series of countryside pictures that pointed the way forward to the Romantic movement. The second theme was taken very slowly, with the notes stretched for maximum pictorial effect. However, the second movement (Scene by the Brook) was relatively fast and flowing. The Scherzo had a rustic, stomping quality, interrupted by a powerful and full-force Storm. The brisk pace resumed for the final Shepherds' Song as woodwinds and horns sounded in an evocation of majestic bliss.

With the Seventh Symphony, the strengths and weaknesses of this orchestra became apparent. The West-Eastern musicians play with vigor, sometimes sacrificing polish and tonal beauty on the altar of youthful energy. Egged on by Mr. Barenboim, they tore into the first three movements of the Seventh, two wild dances framing a solemn, funereal Allegretto. These movements were played attacca (without pauses.) Conductor and orchestra took a quick breather before launching into the madcap final Presto, a whirling dance that evoked the rough summer pleasures of Austrian peasants.

On to Sunday. One might think it unusual to program Beethoven's slender Symphony No. 2 next to the marathon Ninth. But Mr. Barenboim's performance of the earlier symphony found a melodic link between the two works, a six-note, descending phrase in the first movement that is a forerunner of the famed "mysterious" opening of the Ninth. This performance again featured rough edges and an earthy sounds, which under the baton of a lesser musician might be labeled "unkempt."

Those qualities caused some problems in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, where the musicians, faced with the long thematic expansion of the opening subject arrived at the end of key phrases in a bedraggled fashion. Matters improved in the long, pounding Scherzo, played with gusto and a sense of urgency. The slow movement, where Beethoven ruminates at length on the very idea of slow movements, created a state of lucid calm through Mr. Barenboim's barely flowing meter.

The calm was broken by the dissonant chords that touch off the Finale. After bringing out and working through the famous "Ode to Joy" melody, the the real disruption came (as Beethoven intended) when bass René Pape stood up to sing. "O Freunde!" he bellowed, a thunderous, elephantine sound that arrested the attention. As the four soloists: Mr. Pape, soprano Diana Damrau, mezzo Kate Lindsey and tenor Piotr Beczala launched into the verses of the Ode, the performance suddenly jelled.

The orchestra swept forward and then stopped dead. One person in the audience (presumably not knowing the work) clapped. The Turkish march started, and with it a clear, ringing solo from Mr. Beczala. The massive first fugue and recapitulation (the section of this work that everyone knows) overwhelmed in its power, setting up the double fugue and driving presto coda. Any peccadilloes of tempo or phrasing were quickly swept aside by the overwhelming sound of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. In this huge tide of sound, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's purpose was fulfilled: better living through music and peace for the brotherhood of man.
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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.