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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Concert Review: The Ringstrasse Cycle

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The maestro in flight: Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo by Jan Egan © 2016 The Philadelphia Orchestra.
The city of Vienna is a hallowed place, haunted by the ghosts of the great composers, a galaxy of talent from Beethoven to Zemlinsky. oOn Thursday night, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave their first Carnegie Hall concert of 2016' a program that bridged together the work of four great composers, all of whom had strong connections to the city by the Danube.



The concert opened with a light appetizer: Tales From the Vienna Woods by the younger Johann Strauss. Although Strauss is revered as the master of 19th century Viennese operetta, his waltzes and polkas are an idiosyncratic choice for any American orchestra, particularly when not celebrating New Years Eve. The lush, cello-centered sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra was to the fore here, with the first desks playing the little eight-voiced ensemble that provides contrast to the waltzes of the full orchestra. Mr Nézet-Séguin conducted with ebullient charm and not a little wit.

The orchestra was joined by the 20-year old Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, a budding virtuoso who being groomed as the next big thing. Here, he gave a straight and sober account of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. Starting with the staccato solo introduction, all the notes were lovely and accounted for. what was missing was  was the fire and passion that anchors the very best Beethoven. Presumably, will come to this artist with the weight of life experiences in the decades to come. A Schumann encore, the Träumerei from Kinderszenen was more suitable to his talents. It was delicately shaded, subtle, lovely and mysterious.

The second half of the concert bridged Beethoven to the legendary composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. Here, Mr. Nézet-Séguin offered Mahler’s weighty orchestral transcription of Beethoven’s Op. 95 string quartet, nicknamed the “Serioso” by the elder composer. This was coolly received at its Viennese premiere, and has since become an orchestral rarity. Mahler had whole sections of strings take the individual players’ lines, with the cellos and double basses doing divided duty on the lower staves of the score.

Two things emerged. If it is possible, Beethoven became  and even more Herculean figure, with the weightier orchestration lending real muscle to his musical thought. The performance also showed the adeptness of this orchestra ’s superb string section. The five parts dovetailed  nimbly, with the strings playing in taut sync. It is quite something to hear a giant string  dance, and yet another to hear it pirouette with such remarkable precision.

The last work on the program was Charivari by H.K. Gruber, the postmodern Austrian composer who shares some parallels with American pranksters like Frank Zappa and Peter Schickele. His most prominent work is Frankenstein!, which combines a strange narration, passages for toy instruments and a childlike whimsky. This work dates from 1980, when Mr. Gruber was asked to write an orchestral piece for Sir Simon Rattle. Inspired by a Strauss polka that he couldn't get out of his head, Mr. Gruber subtitled his work An Austrian Journal for Orchestra intending the work as a commentary on the complex and twisted history of his native land.

Under Mr. Nézet-Séguin's enthusiastic leadership, Mr. Gruber's work was engaging and playful, with each bar containing a nod and a wink to the occasionally bemused audience. It is a radical reworking of Johann Strauss' Perpetuum Mobile Polka, with sped and slowed tempos, crazy shifts in orchestration and concerto like passages for tuba and thunder machine. Having had his little joke, Mr. Nézet-Séguin turned to the audience and urged them to stay for "three more minutes" as he conducted the original Strauss polka. As he wound it down to silence he turned to the audience and quipped "Life...goes on."

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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.