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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Concert Review: The Alternate Side

Manfred Honeck conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It's the "Manfred" symphony! Manfred Honeck (with baton) leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.

The New York Philharmonic's search for a successor to Alan Gilbert in the post of music director made headlines for much of the past calendar year. Earlier this year, the orchestra selected Jaap van Zweden as its next boss, choosing the Dutch conductor over the Austrian maestro Manfred Honeck, current music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This week would be  Mr. Honeck's turn to show New York audiences what he could do, as he led a traditional (and very Germanic) program in the standard overture-concerto-symphony format featuring works by Franz von Suppé, Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Mr. Honeck made a canny choice in Suppé's Poet and Peasant Overture to lead off this concert program seen at Friday's matinee concert in David Geffen Hall. Born in Croatia, Suppé rose to fame as the father of Viennese operetta, churning out 50 stage works that now rest on the ash heap of history. A pity, for the brassy opening and warm, lyric cello solo show this composer's considerable gift for a good tune, and the bustling presto that follows indicates a work that would probably be a good night at the theater if any company would care to stage it.

The creation of Richard Strauss' autumnal Oboe Concerto is a famous one, originally told in 2001 by writer Peter Bloom. It is worth recounting here. At the end of World War II in 1945, the composer was living in his villa in the occupied Alpine town of Garmisch. An American soldier, one John De Lancie, paid him a visit. Mr. De Lancie (who would later join the Philadelphia Orchestra and father the actor of the same name) asked Strauss if he would ever write an oboe concerto. Strauss' answer was a brusque "nein", but the seed was planted. He would finish the work in 1946. At its premiere in Zurich, the composer was 83 years old.

This is a modest work by Strauss standards, with a smallish orchestra one-third the size of that used for his operas and tone poems. Strauss makes heroic demands for the soloist. Here, Philharmonic principal Liang Wang used his considerable abilities in the long opening arc, a sort of aria for the instrument that requires great breath control and superlative technique. The three contiguous movements grew in complexity, until the solo oboe seemed to be singing three vocal lines at once in a manner redolent of the great trio and duet that concludes last act of Der Rosenkavalier.

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony is one of his most popular works. However, it t is infrequently programmed t the Philharmonic. The last performances were in 2011 under Bernard Haitink. Cast in five movements, it imagines a trip to the Austrian countryside. The score is rich and inventive, with new musical ideas popping out to draw the attention of even the most jaded professional listener. Folk songs, a ranz de vaches and even subtle quotations of other Beethoven works abound, making each hearing a new and rewarding experience.

Here, Mr. Honeck took a brisk pace for the arrival in Beethoven's aural landscape, bringing out the pulsing, breathing rhythms of the main themes with efficiency. The pace slackened and the music broadened. One could almost hear the traveler relaxing in this sylvan environment, as the simple tunes of the fields, mountains and open sky replaced the stresses of urban life. In this performance, the audience seemed to appreciate the break from the bustle of New York, as a wave of warm applause greeted the end of the first movement.

Mr. Wang was back in his chair in the woodwind section for this work, and his oboe figured prominently in the delicate Scene by the Brook. Dialoguing with flute, clarinet and a solo horn, the instrument evoked the sound of birds even as a soft pizzicatto in the basses brought out the sound of a stone skipped across flowing water. The rustic scherzo breathed and guffawed like a village band powered by spring wine and their own sense of ability, with the Philharmonic players gleefully impersonating the town band. With the crash-bang of the Thunderstorm, the would-be virtuosos ran for cover, giving way to a storm of elemental fury. All this rage was banished in the final Shepherds Song. Led by clarinet and flute, this return to peace made one wonder if the Philharmonic had hired the right conductor after all.

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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.