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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Concert Review: Buttoning Up

The MET Orchestra ends their season at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
One of the "Local 802" badges from Sunday's concert.
Used with permission of the photographer.
One year ago, the MET Orchestra's season-ending Carnegie Hall concert became the biggest story of the spring season. That concert, which marked the return of James Levine to conducting duties showed the players of the Metropolitan Opera's orchestra turning a corner and sounding inspired after a lackluster year spent without their music director. This Sunday's matinee concert was an all-Dvořák affair, just one day after the orchestra played two season-ending shows at the Metropolitan Opera House. It's a big story for a very different reason.

When the musicians of the MET Orchestra took the Carnegie Hall stage, every member of the ensemble was wearing a badge or a button. The orange buttons read "Save the Met." The white badges said "MET Orchestra Musicians: Local 802." For the players, this was the final concert of the current season and the last under the current union contract, which is up for re-negotiation with an expiration date of July 31, 2014. (In recent weeks, Met general manager Peter Gelb has gone public with his demand for a series of across-the-board salary reductions from orchestra, musicians and stage-hands. Negotiations are in progress.)

The ugly possibility of a lockout was temporarily forgotten once the performance started. Sunday's concert showed the passion of Mr. Levine for this Czech composer, whose vast output continues to be under-represented despite the popularity of his major works for orchestra. The Met players sounded positively invigorated in the Carnival Overture, playing the clatter-crash opening theme with gusto and reveling in the bright acoustics of Carnegie Hall. As one, they careened through the three-part Overture, responding to each gesture of their beloved chief.

The Cello Concerto followed, with the orchestra joined by soloist Lynn Harrell. Now 70, the cellist mouthed the beats of the first thematic statement along with the orchestra before mimicking them on his instrument. This started the long journey of the first movement, as the cello part wove itself into the orchestral fabric only to emerge, commenting on the themes as they developed. With quick double-stops and expressive bowing, Mr. Harrell allowed the voice-like qualities of the cello to carry the lament in B minor, expertly underpinned and supported by Mr. Levine.

The Adagio was hymn-like, with gentle tunes from the woodwinds providing a calm center to the entire work. Again, Mr. Harrell expressed himself in bold, passionate colors against an ocean of echoing strings, playing with a beautiful singing tone. The last movement was all fireworks, as Mr. Levine led his orchestra and soloist in an inexorable march that would later be appropriated by Gustav Mahler.

Following this explosive ending, Mr. Harrell returned to the stage, remembering aloud how he first met Mr. Levine when the conductor was a pre-teen. Then, he offered an exquisite encore: the first movement of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. With its subtle, pianissmo beginning and passionate concluding bars, this solo performance nearly eclipsed the music that had gone before.

Dvořák's Seventh Symphony is often pushed aside by its two successors, but this performance revealed it as one of the composer's most compelling works. Under Mr. Levine, the orchestra was stern and authoritative, from the big-shouldered, Brahmsian main theme of the opening Allegro to the shifting, almost Wagner-like passages of the slow movement. Squarely straddling the dichotomies between those two 19th century styles, Mr. Levine led a brilliant account of this movement that reminded listeners of this conductor's long-standing enthusiasm for Bohemian music.

The sophisticated, rhythmically complex Scherzo veered into a sweet, wholesome and here, sublimely played trio section. This highlighted the excellent qualities of the winds and strings before the brass pounded back into the chugging, off-rhythm dance theme. The finale another long march toward symphonic destiny veered in its coda, ending in a series of triumphant chords that proved that there may indeed be light at the end of the tunnel. For the sake of this opera company and its marvelous orchestra, let's hope that Dvořák was right.

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