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Friday, October 14, 2011

Concert Review: The Return of Lorin Maazel

Former Philharmonic maestro returns with cheerful Mozart and Debussy.
Lorin Maazel and the wooden railing. Photo by Chris Lee © New York Philharmonic.
One of the highlights of the 2011-2012 New York Philharmonic schedule is the return of the three "M's": former Philharmonic music directors Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, and Zubin Mehta to the podium in Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Maazel is the first of these. On Friday afternoon, the conductor appeared at Avery Fisher Hall for the first time in three years. This was his second concert of the weekend, a pleasant, if unadventurous program of works by Mozart and Debussy.

The concert opened with a broad reading of Mozart's Prague Symphony, the composer's 38th. Mr. Maazel and the orchestra sounded relaxed and genial in the opening movement, following the stirring slow introduction with a joyful leap into the main theme of the Allegro. Mr. Maazel was loose on the podium, sometimes using minimal movements of his long white baton, sometimes leading with one hand on the wooden railing behind him.

The conductor seemed happy to be back. The orchestra offered the same genial impression. The central slow movement was played with lush, almost hypnotic textures from the orchestra's wind section. The strings sounded crisp, but never stiff or hurried in the final movement, as the band flew through the pages of the Rondo, driven with a steady tick of the white baton.

The rarely heard Concerto for Flute and Harp followed. Mozart wrote this double concerto when he was 21, for a French nobleman (and flautist) whose harp-playing daughter was one of his music students. Pairing it with the "Prague" established contrast between the composer's more familiar, mature style and the galant music expected by his French clients. 
Flautist Robert Langevin and harpist Nancy Allen created a unique sound as they played together, using cadenzas that were written, not by Mozart but by Karl Hermann Pillney. The flute-and-harp combination wove melodic lines together creating a celestial texture against the expertly played orchestral accompaniment.

The second half of the program featured two contrasting works by Debussy. Jeux is one of the French composer's most demanding scores, an abstract ballet that has an almost total absence of melody. It's all little fragments of sound, arranged artfully in an aural shimmer.  Little stabs of struck cymbal and tambourine penetrate the complex fabric, alternating with short lines for winds and horns. Mr. Maazel led this difficult music in an engaging manner, opening up the sound-world of the piece and letting Debussy's inspired writing speak for itself.

Iberia is ten years older, a colorful work found in the larger collection Images.. This work, originally conceived as a piano duet finds Debussy in "tour guide" mode with sound-pictures of France's southern neighbor. (Ironically, the composer had not visited Spain before writing the piece!)

The work offers impressions of scenes in Spanish city life. Portraits of a street scene and a nocturne gave plenty of opportunity for orchestral color and shape. The Philharmonic responded admirably in these movements. The festive finale was dominated by the brass and percussion, in the manner of many past concerts under Mr. Maazel's baton.

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