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Friday, December 10, 2010

Concert Review: Black Gondolas and Highland Flings at Carnegie Hall

Susan Graham
Photo by Dario Acosta
Thursday night's program at Carnegie Hall featured the Orchestra of St. Luke's taking on unconventional works by Franz Liszt and Alban Berg, paired with a solid, straight-laced performance of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony. Edo de Waart conducted, joined for Berg's Seven Early Songs by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

The concert opened with The Black Gondola, John Adams' 1990 orchestration of La lúgubre gondola, a Liszt tone poem for piano. This is not one of Liszt's Italian postcards from the
Années de pèlerinage. It is a much later, darker work that meditates on death. Edo de Waart led a finely balanced performance.

It was interesting to hear Liszt transcribed for orchestra. For much of his career, the virtuoso pianist and composer specialized in the reverse: reducing orchestral works, opera excerpts, and even whole Beethoven symphonies into fiendishly difficult piano show-pieces. Mr. Adams' orchestration retains all of the original's profundity and power, building somber, chromatic figures into a rich, surging climax. The Black Gondola is Liszt at his most experimental, stretching and pushing the fabric of tonality.

Those who first encountered music of Alban Berg through the opera Wozzeck are often surprised upon hearing the Seven Early Songs. These works are redolent of late Romanticism, evoking a hot-house atmosphere with soaring vocal lines and lush orchestral accompaniment. These are love songs, and they were well suited to Susan Graham's rich instrument. She sang with warmth, power, and unfailing sweetness, making the most of each outpouring in a passionate flood of sound.

Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony (his Third) was inspired by an 1829 visit to Edinburgh and the Highlands, but did not receive its premiere until 1842. This is the most famous of Mendelssohn's five symphonies, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's made the most of their longstanding familiarity with this material. The brass and winds stepped to the fore in the opening Allegro. The strings sobbed throigh the swelling slow movement, and the finale marched to a majestic finish under the skilled direction of Mr. de Waart.

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