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Monday, May 19, 2014

Concert Review: The 57th St. Experiment

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
David Bowman (Keir Dullea) listens to music by György Ligeti.
Image from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
© 1968 MGM/Turner Entertainment.
This week's Sunday matinee concert at Carnegie Hall was the last formal program of the spring 2014 season at the historic venue. The last of three consecutive concerts featuring the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mariss Jansons, it was also something of an experiment: examining the development of modern music in central Europe by moving steadily backwards in time.

The first work was Atmosphéres, the 1961 composition by György Ligeti that is best remembered as the "space warp" music from the climactic sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Built from solid walls of tone-clusters and diaphanous chords, Atmosphéres, sounds like one 10-minte drawing of breath, shifting colors in a Protean fashion between groups of instruments. Under Mr. Jansons, the Bavarians responded with dark, muscular tone in an absorbing performance that proved an excellent soundtrack for a voyage by cosmic astronauts.

The next stop was 1935, the year of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. Written as an elegy for Manon Gropius, a young girl who was very much like a daughter to the composer, this is an anguished, intimate work built around rigorous 12-tone principals, but infused with a lyricism that was the particular provenance of this composer.  Soloist Gil Shaham showed his innate grasp of the work's complex architecture from the first series of notes, soaring with his instrument from sweet, tender lullabies to waltzes and a devastating outburst of grief.

While some violinists approach this work with all guns blazing, Mr. Shaham took a more restrained approach, grieving with slightly muted tone as the complex orchestration shimmered and shifted. This performance became not a howl of despair but a celebration of Manon's life, all the more moving when soloist and conductor reached an accord in the final, Bach-inspired section of the final movement. Mr. Shaham followed the concerto with more Bach: the Gavotte from Partita No. 3.

In the Vienna of 1877, Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 2 was held up as a model of conservative "pure" music against the lush Romanticism of Wagner's recently completed Ring Cycle. However, Brahms' innovations and dense style were also the inspiration for the Second Viennese School, laying the groundwork for Schoenberg, Berg and Webern to do away with tonality and steer music off in fresh and brilliant new directions.

Under Mr. Jansons, Brahms' well-traveled symphony sounded unusually fresh, played with vigor and bold, dark tone by the Bavarian forces. From the strings' statement of the motto theme in the opening Allegro to the shifting quasi-chromatic tone colors of the slow movement that followed, this was a masterful performance that brought out the great qualities of this famous score and made them sound fresh and somewhat re-thought.

The famous Poco Adagietto, with its lilting main theme for woodwindswas thoroughly absorbing, showing the good colors of this orchestra's wind section and setting up the grand game of the final movement. In this rondo, the orchestra cycles through its main thematic repeatedly, returning to a three-note figure that evokes church bells played in the strings. This builds up to a triumphal final statement from the trombones and tuba, which sounded with force and brilliance. This performance was filled with great vitality and innovative spirit: the sound of musicians playing music they clearly love.

Following thunderous applause, the orchestra had one last trick: a flashy encore for brass, percussion and squealing harmonic strings with a virtuoso part for the concertmaster. The piece enthralled the audience but puzzled the cognoscenti. A quick check with the orchestra's librarian revealed the work to be by Ligeti again, the closing movement of that composer's Concert Românesc. This performance was an excellent argument for this rarely heard Gypsy-influenced work (from the very early period period of this innovative composer) to be put before the public more often.

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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.