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Friday, January 17, 2014

Concert Review: The Early Bird Gets the Mermaid

The New York Philharmonic plays Stravinsky, Zemlinsky and Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Detail from The Mermaid in the Sea by Edmund Dulac.
Image from WikiMedia Commons.
As the New York Philharmonic gears up for next week’s season announcement, there is no drop in the quality of music being made at Avery Fisher Hall. That’s the impression, anyway from Friday’s 11am matinee concert, the second in a concert weekend featuring the young Russian conductor Andrei Boreyko and three interesting works from dusty corners of the classical repertory. The two large orchestral pieces on the program had this in common both were based upon the fairy tales of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.

The program opened with Stravinsky’s Le Chant du Rossignol (“The Song of the Nightingale) a three-movement ballet score drawn from the composer’s earlier (failed) opera Le Rossignol. While Stravinsky had started work on the opera, (about an enchanted nightingale and its performance career before the court of a Chinese emperor) before writing his trilogy of earth-shaking works for the Ballet-Russe, his final re-orchestration of this piece dates from after Le Sacre du Printemps. Thus, this work looks both forward and back, standing at a critical juncture in the composer’s career.

Mr. Boreyko drew a rich a palette of colors from the large orchestra, evoking the picturesque lake that is the nightingale’s original home before plunging straight into the heart of the work, a competition between the nightingale and a singing mechanical bird. The orchestration here can verge on parody but Mr. Boreyko chose to play the work "straight," relying on strong solo work from the flute and violin to keep the story moving along.

It is the latter, (soon to be "modern") Stravinsky whose voice is heard in the imaginative confrontation between Death and the Emperor, broken only by the return of the solo violin and the intercession of the nightingale. The work climaxes with a solemn funeral march for piano, celeste and harps. This imaginative orchestration gave way to ththe glowing final bars, a peal of joyh as the Emperor is suddenly resurrected.

Mozart was only 18 when he fired off his Bassoon Concerto, itself a tribute to the high quality of court musicians in the young composer’s Salzburg home. Of the five he wrote for the “clown of the orchestra”, it is the only one that has survived. Here, the solo voice was taken by Philharmonic principal bassoonist Judith LeClair, who enhanced the work further by adding imaginative cadenza passages of her own composition.

Although pleasing to the ear and wonderfully complex, these excursions were disconcerting when placed next to the more dulcet tones of Mozart’s original score. Still, the power and flexibility of this talented soloist were on full display, particularly int he operatic, almost vocal soliloquies that the bassoon gets in the first and second movements. The horns could have been sweeter in tone throughout but that is a minor quibble.

The composer Alexander Zemlinsky remains a largely forgotten man in the landscape of early 20th century music. Any performance of his three-movement symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau may do much for the reputation of a composer who taught Arnold Schoenberg and also had a strong influence on the development of Gustav Mahler. Seejungfrau (yes, that’s Andersen's The Little Mermaid) is essentially a hybrid. A symphony in three movements, it is written with a concise, thick orchestration and attention to form that would have made Johannes Brahms beam. Zemlinsky also exercises Wagner’s theories of “unending melody” and the development of characters through the clever use of leitmotif. The work, and its composer’s relative obscurity might stem from the fact that the score was lost (with the first movement in a European archive, the second and third with the composer's family after they fled the Nazis) for a period of 50 years.

Despite aggravating and persistent noises from the Friday morning audience, the Philharmonic players did Zemlinsky proud. Each movement and fresh musical idea was delivered in sparkling colors, from the impressionist ocean-scapes of the opening to the brassy fanfare announcing the arrival of the evil Sea Witch into the story. The central movement is a lilting, affectionate parody of the Viennese waltz, which breaks into a trio section to evoke the Witch’s magic. The slam-bang finale chronicles the unfortunate wedding of the handsome (but link-headed) human prince, and the tragic end of the title character beneath the waves. However, Zemlinsky gave his heroine a shimmering apotheosis, ending his work in a glowing coda that poured fourth from the huge orchestra in a radiant flood of sound. 
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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.