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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Concert Review: The Power of Turbulence

Pablo Heras-Casado debuts with the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pablo Heras-Casado. Photo by Javier de Real © 2014 pabloherascasado.com
The New York Philharmonic continued its current run of successful guest conductors last week with the arrival of Pablo Heras-Casado. Now 36, Mr. Heras-Casado is currently serving as Principal Conductor of the neighboring Orchestra of St. Luke's. On Friday morning, the conductor led the third concert in this week's program. The slate of works played to this orchestra's considerable strengths, with three tonal masterworks drawn from the troubled middle years of the 20th century.

Benjamin Britten wrote Peter Grimes, his first real operatic success in the years following World War II, which he spent as a conscientious objector. Grimes is a portrait of the ultimate outsider, set in a tiny English fishing village with a protagonist who is one of the great outsiders in modern opera. When performed at Covent Garden, it assured Britten of a successful career.

The Four Sea Interludes are drawn from the six intermezzi that either open or divide the scenes in Peter Grimes. Mr. Heras-Casado showed his experience as a budding opera conductor here. Bright tones rang from the brass section. Salty orchestral colors swelled from the strings. Sunday Morning, with its soft chords leading to a powerful, Mussorgskian use of orchestra bells, and the furious Storm were contrasted by the quiet, atmospheric textures of Dawn and Moonlight.


Peter Serkin was the featured soloist in Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3. This is a strange little concerto, one of the composer's last works, composed in a race against time as Bartók, living in a miserable exile in New York City, battled the leukemia which ultimately killed him. Mr. Serkin chose to approach the work with a bold, singing tone, making the most of the lyric interplay between pianist and percussion in the first movement, and drawing gossamer-soft chords in the work's nocturnal central movement.

In the final Allegro vivace soloist and conductor came together to create a perpetuum mobile built around a lurching ostinato theme. Percussion (particularly the timpani) plays an important role here. Mr. Serkin bobbed and weaved in out of the orchestral line, leading off the big fugue that iterates and reiterates the obsessive central melodic idea to thrilling effect.  Mr. Heras-Casado balanced the solo line with the complicated textures of woodwinds and strings, bringing the final coda to a bright, triumphant coda--the only part of this work that its creator did not live to finish.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 is at once the most popular of the composer's later symphonies and one of his most subversive creations. The work premiered in 1954, a year after the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Like most other Soviet artists, Shostakovich had lived in personal terror of Stalin's artist purges. Moreso, because Stalin's attendance at Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District led to a general denunciation of his music and triggered a round of purges of composers and artists. The Tenth is a musical portrait of that oppression and terror, and depicts the composer's personal triumph at surviving Stalin's reign.

The first movement is built towards a central climax, in which a slow, heavy tread in the low instruments depicts the bent backs of the Russian people. Mr. Heras-Casado unleashed huge walls of sound in the central climax. The diminuendo that followed had some of the most beautiful playing of the concert with soft tones in the contrabassoon and basses. The Philharmonic brass seized power in the fast second movement that followed, a roaring, whirling tornado of fortissimo sound that may represent Stalin himself.

The third movement starts with nervous little dance figures, yielding to a four-note figure in the woodwinds. This figure, (D-E flat-C-B Natural for Dmiter SCHostakovich) represents the composer himself. In the finale the four-note theme reasserted itself with furious power. Mr. Heras-Casado brought rich tonal color and bold, dark strokes to the frantic fugato/i> on the four-note theme, bringing in the percussion and brass and stirring the players to a roaring, raucous finish. With a successful concert like this one, the future looks bright for future collaborations between this young conductor and the veteran orchestra. 
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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.