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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.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Concert Review: Brought To You By The Letter "B"

Juanjo Mena conducts Beethoven and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
In search of transcendence: conductor Juanjo Mena.
Photo © 2016 Columbia Artists Management Inc.
On the same day that the New York Philharmonic announced the appointment of Jaap van Zweden as its 26th music director, the orchestra was scheduled to perform two classic works from the 19th century. On the podium, Juanjo Mena, the Spanish conductor who is music director of the BBC Philharmonic. He was leading the Beethoven Violin Concerto (with soloist James Ehnes) and Bruckner's Symphony No. 6, a lesser-known example of that composer's art. Interestingly, this is the type of conservative program that might be ideally suited to Mr. van Zweden's talents.



The Beethoven concerto marked the return of Mr. Ehnes to the Philharmonic stage, playing the work that remains among the most beloved examples of its genre. It opened with five soft taps from the timpani, establishing the rhythm of the piece and its main motivic idea, much as the opening four notes underwrite the character of the entire Fifth Symphony. For the lengthy orchestral opening of the first movement, Mr. Mena commanded the orchestra to play with the utmost restraint. He drew a translucent, almost weightless sound from the Philharmonic players, a perfect introduction for Mr. Ehnes' first solo utterance.

When it finally entered, the tone of Mr. Ehnes' Stradivarius was almost celestial, a high-flying song that echoed and improved upon the orchestra's statement. The long movement unfurled with orchestra and violinist bringing each other to greater heights ins a spiral dance of sound that reached its climax with the great cadenza that closes this movement.

The central Larghetto was serenity itself, an exploration of the celestial space gained in the opening movement. Mr. Ehnes' tone turned sweet and caressing here, his solo passages interacting with woodwinds and orchestral strings. The dancing finale is one of Beethvoen's most playfiul and difficult movements, requiring nimble fingers and a sense of genuine joy to come off correctly. Mr. Ehnes and Mr. Mena brought both qualities to this performance, dueling through the final passages before joining in a joyous close.

Mr. Mena took a more somber approach to Bruckner's Sixth, bringing the power of the Philharmonic brass squarely to the fore. This is one of the composer's most straightforward opening movements, following a strict sonata architecture in a momentous, if unhurried fashion. The conductor was somewhat free and unrestrained in hisapproach, opting for an at times overwhelming wall of sound in place of the necessary grandeur.

The slow movement though was a marvel, with the crack woodwind players engaging in an almost conversational exchange between their instruments and the solo horns. The audience was rapt, and applauded the movement, the playing and the outstanding quality of the Philharmonic's winds.

The arrival of the next movement meant bombast, as the thundering scherzo roared and capered like peasants celebrating a Walpurgisnacht. The trio offered delicate contrast with fine playing from the strings. The finale was blurred at times, with Bruckner staging a contest of ideas between competing themes, wrapping everything up with a statement of the opening motif. This was competently played, but lacked that last infinitessimal quantity of awe.

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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.