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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Concert Review: The Hero of the Audience

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts the New York Philharmonic.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.
Photo by Chris Lee © Chris Lee Photography.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The return of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to the podium at Avery Fisher Hall is an annual tradition at the New York Philharmonic. The Spanish conductor always offers unique interpretations of the repertory in a firmly conservative style, beloved by the orchestra's subscriber base. This week's concert program featuring the music of Beethoven and Richard Strauss was also part of the season-long valediction for concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, who is wrapping up his three decades in the position. Friday's afternoon audience, more conservative than most, were thrilled at the prospect of two works written in firm tonal language.

Mr. Fruhbeck elected to open the concert with Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, the shortest and most quicksilver of the composer's nine. From the downward slash of the opening chords, this was an unabashedly Romantic performance. Mr. Frühbeck chose a slightly larger orchestra, giving the dance rhythms an unusually thick texture. This was most apparent in the Allegretto. First violinist (Sheryl Staples) set the metronome pace at quick but moderate, not the pell-mell playing that has become popular among more modern Beethovenians. 

This relaxed approach to Beethoven continued in the Minuet, a movement where Beethoven looks back on the 18th century's use of that particular form and writes one that effectively lays the genre to rest. Mr. Frühbeck brought playfulness sense of fun to the sprinting final movement, although one might have hoped for more energy and aggression in this finale. The Philharmonic players delivered beautiful tone from strings winds and horns, wrapping up the one Beethoven symphony that is short enough to use as an effective curtain-raiser.

Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") was a watershed among Richard Strauss' tone poems, the start of a series of orchestral self-portraits by the German composer who had just ridden his first wave of success as a creator of tone poems and in-demand conductor. (The operas were to follow, with Ein Heldenleben (1899) arriving before the wild success of Salome.) Laced with quotations (and previews) of the great works to come, it is the  musical autobiography of a man who had reached maturity at the age of 35. In six contiguous movements, it is unconventional in following symphonic form, containing elements of concerto, tone poem and dance in its 47-minute span.

Aided by the Philharmonic's stellar brass section (expanded to 18 players for this tone poem) Mr. Frühbeck led a bold, muscular performance of this Strauss piece, from the introductory 'cello theme (representing Strauss himself) to the contrasting, difficult broken runs for flute and E flat clarinet, representing "The Hero's Enemies" (the braying of muted brass is the composer's own blunt response to music critics.) Ironically, although Strauss sat squarely on the fence between modern atonality and old-fashioned romanticism, this passage is among his nerviest orchestral creations, dominated by a descending four-note figure that foreshadows Die Frau ohne Schatten

Strauss made the third movement of Ein Heldenleben into a one-movement violin concerto, here featuring Mr. Dicterow as soloist. This tender, sweet writing for solo instrument (with only occasional comment from the orchestra) takes the work's main ideas and turns them into support for a new theme, representative of "The Hero's Companion." This is the first of many portraits of former soprano  Pauline Strauss (née de Ahna) whom he had married five years before. Mr. Dicterow has made this long solo his calling card as a concertmaster, and this performance featured lush, singing tone from his instrument and a sense of tenderness, isolation and yearning in each note.

The composer's feelings for his beloved are set aside for the "Battlefield" sequence. Brass, snare drums and strings are the chief weapons here, the whole conducted with gusto by Mr. Frühbeck. This is a conductor who knows that this orchestra knows this work, and his role becomes largely the giving of cues and encouragement of all players except (following Strauss' own rules of conducting), the enormous (and potentially overpowering) brass section.

The noble horns took over, muted for The Hero's Works of Peace, a series of flashbacks quoting no less than thirty older works in the Strauss catalogue. Skilled playing from the Philharmonic woodwinds was the highlight here. The finale, "The Hero's Retreat" featured a moving English horn solo, a noble chorale of hornss, and a final, brassy forte fading out in the high violins.

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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.