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Friday, April 15, 2011

Concert Review: Two Paths, Two Rivals, Two Conductors

Kurt Masur Conducts the New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur. Photo by Chris Lee © 2009 New York Philharmonic
When Kurt Masur comes back to the New York Philharmonic, it's always a big deal. The German conductor steered the orchestra through eleven acclaimed seasons from 1991 to 2002, expanding the repertory, breaking new musical ground, and honing the orchestra's sound in a successful term as music director.

This week's program featured two composers that are at the heart of Mr. Masur's repertory: Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt. In 19th century Europe, Brahms and Liszt occupied seperate musical "camps". Brahms was pigeon-holed as the arch-conservative, steeped in the tradition of Beethoven. Liszt: the wild Romantic who created new musical forms and gave barn-storming, piano-breaking performances that caused extreme behavior in his doting fans.

Mr. Masur chose to bridge this gap with Two Paths, a double concerto for violas and orchestra by Sofia Gubudalaina, which was originally comimssioned by the conductor's wife, Tomoko Masur. Philharmonic principal violists Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young (the soloists at the work's 1999 premiere) were scheduled to play. But an eye infection has made Mr. Masur unable to read sheet music this week. Assistant conductor Daniel Boico stepped in.

Two Paths, inspired by the New Testament figures of Mary and Martha, is a set of seven variations. Mr. Boico juxtaposed jarring brass chords and unusual percussion with otherworldly orchestral textures. Ms. Phelps and Ms. Young played their slow dance of entwining violas, one soaring up the scale to represent the faith of Mary, the other spiralling downward as the more pragmatic Martha.

For the Liszt and Brahms works, Mr. Masur relied on a prodigious memory and six decades of podium experience. The concert opened with an elegaic performance of Les Preludes, the third, (and most frequently played) of Liszt's tone poems. Its pretentious subject matter (don't ask) stands in contrast to its compelling orchestral writing and elemental tone-painting. Mr. Masur skipped the program and focused on pure music, panning gold from Liszt's rushing rivers of sound.

Kurt Masur presented Brahms' First Symphony as the work of a secret progressive, demonstrating how Brahms used the conventional four-movement framework of the instrumental symphony to explore new textures and fresh ideas of rhythm and phrasing. From the steady rhythm of the introduction to  the finale (which quotes Beethoven's Ode to Joy), Mr. Masur led the symphony as a cohesive whole, giving cohesion to Brahms' big orchestral gestures.

The last two movements were played without a break, creating a momentum that drove the whole work home in true Romantic style. The connection between conductor and band may have been stormy, but this performance showed that, a decade later, it is still as strong as ever.

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