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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Concert Review: The Last and the Biggest

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Balancing act: conductor Mariss Jansons brought the
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra back to Carnegie Hall this week.
Photo from the orchestra's official site, © 2014 Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Although the concert season at Carnegie Hall is breathing its last, Friday night marked the return of one of Germany's greatest orchestras to that historic venue. This was the first of three performances this week featuring the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mariss Jansons. The program featured concert hall standard by Richard Strauss and Hector Berlioz, preceded by the first Carnegie Hall premiere of John Adams' 1996 work Slonimsky's Earbox.

The John Adams piece opened with a thunderous crash of percussion and brass, leading to whirling woodwind figures that sounded as if they'd accompany an early 20th century ballet. Indeed, the composer's choice to name-check Nicolas Slonimsky (the writer and musicologist whose oeuvre includes the truly funny Lexicon of Musical Invective indicated immediately that this was a retrospective work, obsessed with chronicling the development of sound in the 20th century.

After these brassy eructations, the work settled into a recognizable Adams groove, a repeating figure for strings, woodwinds, piano and electronic keyboard. This built in momentum, an increasing heartbeat of sound that quickened and rose in volume from the orchestra. The Bavarian players have a unique tone quality, brass-heavy and slightly raw, yet capable of great precision and beauty of tone. That brassy weight crashed again as the work came to a close, slamming the lid on the Earbox.

In Don Juan, the Bavarians proved to be muscular and brash, with a welcome, cock-sure swagger in the horn section as they tore happily into Richard Strauss'  big central theme. The love-music (some of the more genuinely emotional writing of the pre-Salome Strauss) brought the woodwinds to the fore, as they played an eloquent ensemble against an unfurling carpet of strings.  If not for an errant cell phone trilling (from down front of the parquet seating) this would have been a near-perfect performance of this tone poem.

The second half of the concert featured a blistering performance of Hector Berlioz' phantasmagorical Symphonie fantastique with the lush strings providing the first statement of the work's central idée-fixe. The theme was tossed to winds and brass as Mr. Jansons whipped the orchestra into a froth for the first movement, drawing particularly beautiful textures in the Religioso coda that ends the movement and hints at the darkness to come.

The second movement (Un bal) was played with elegance and grace, but three cell phones sounded off again in the pause before the third. Mr. Jansons waited for the ringers to quiet before beginning the lonely woodwind solo that starts this movement. Following a frenzied central section, the movement shrank to an appalling, now ominous quiet. No more phones sounded.

If the first three movements were impressive, the last two were positively ballistic. The tuba players and percussion led the slow, deadly March to the Scaffold, a picture in dread and precision playing. The final Dream of a Sabbath Night was everything it should have been, with conductor and players taking an almost sadistic glee in this dark and glorious tone-painting. The tuba players acquitted themselves nobly in the famous Dies Irae and the strings were merry and dark in the Witches' Round Dance that brings this work to a slam-bang finish.

Following thunderous applause, Mr. Jansons returned to conduct an encore, the last section of Strauss' Rosenkavalier Suite. The Bavarian players seemed to take particular joy in this finale, which was the perfect palate cleanser after the exceptionally dark, heavy Berlioz.

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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.