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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, May 19, 2013

Concert Review: The Defense of the New

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Soprano Barbara Hannigan as the Police Chief from Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.
Image from BarbaraHannigan.com.
Some composers still need an advocate. Today's audiences are filled with skeptics, put off by the idea of atonal music and names like Berg, Webern and Ligeti. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, the current music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. This program cemented Sir Simon's reputation as a fearless advocate for these new sounds, interpreted through the rich, velvety texture of this top-flight ensemble.

The concert opened with Webern's Passacaglia. This is the composer's first published work, published in 1908 but written well before he came under Schoenberg's tutelage. Plucked strings establish an eight-note bass theme, which is then put through twenty-three permutations supported by a very large orchestra. Sir Simon brought hushed delicacy to the early passages, and power and urgency to the huge chords of brass and strings that form the work's climactic moments.

The orchestra was joined by soprano Barbara Hannigan for Three Fragments from Alban Berg's seminal 1925 opera Wozzeck. These arrangements were made by the composer as a kind of "road show" to build awareness for his first opera, the sad story of a soldier who murders his unfaithful lover and then drowns while trying to recover the murder weapon. Ms. Hannigan played the central role of Marie in these excerpts, which include Marie's two important solo scenes and the opera's finale.

Berg demands flexibility from this huge orchestra, requiring the sounds of a military band, a chamber orchestra, often in the same scene. Sinuous themes hinted at the murder to come, with slithering, jarring chords. Ms. Hannigan melted into the part of the doomed Marie, torn between her lust for the pompous Drum Major and her infant child. The Prayer Scene (Act II Scene 1) followed, with Ms. Hannigan mixing song with sprechstimme ("song-speech") creating a picture of desparation.

The third excerpt presented Wozzeck's death, a moving elegy for the common man defeated by forces beyond his control. This was played with power and heart-felt emotion. The repeated statements of a single note in the orchestra led to a chorale-like reiteration of the protagonist's despairing main theme. In the last scene of the opera, Ms. Hannigan played the parts of a gang of children and the protagonists' young, orphaned son. She turned and sang "Hop-hopp!" the final words of the lad, riding his hobby-horse.

The second half of the evening opened with a black-wigged Ms. Hannigan bursting onto the stage. Decked out in vinyl boots and a black latex trench-coat, she reprised the (insane) Chief of Police in Mysteries of the Macabre, a ten-minute excerpt from György Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre. This is a coloratura tour-de-force and a concert specialty of this artist. Written for a small, unconventional orchestra, it sounds like Mozart's Queen of the Night gone further round the bend and singing in carefully notated gibberish. Ms. Hannigan's brilliant, over-the-top performance made the Hall rock with laughter, especially when she knocked Mr. Rattle off his podium and started flailing at the orchestra.

The concert concluded with a note-perfect performance of Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony. This was an energetic walk through the composer's imaginary country-side, rambling through fields and forests with stops by the brook to hear birds twitter and chirp in the woodwinds. The cellos took the lead with these familiar, expansive themes, in an idyllic portrait that somehow clarified the details of the score. Conductor and orchestra took glee as they impersonated the merry town band of the third movement, scattering them with the thunderstorm that followed. The final Shepherd's Song was played with deep, serene feeling, and a sound from the orchestra that seemed to glow in the final pages.
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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.