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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, February 22, 2016

Concert Review: Village Raves and Watery Graves

Juraj Valčuha at the New York Philharmonic.
Conductor Juraj Valčuha led the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo © 2015 Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Although the New York Philharmonic has finally and decisively appointed a new music director, there is still a spirit of healthy competition on its podium between young conductors deigning to be heard before one of the most loyal audiences in New York. This week it was the turn of Juraj Valčuha, a Slovakian firebrand who offered an interesting program of works from central Europe. 

The concert opened with a relative rarity: the Dances of Galánta by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. Gálanta is actually in Slovakia, and inspired Kodály to a write a five movement work that starts sedately before rising to a whirling, thrilling climax. Mr. Valčuha drew sweet and pensive tones from the woodwinds before bringing the orchestra to a frenzied, foot-stomping climax.

Next, the young conductor was joined by piano veteran Yefim Bronfman for the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2. Mr. Bronfman is equally at home in the worlds of Beethoven and Bartók, but he seemed an unconventional choice for this slight, delicate Liszt work, which seems more porcelain than passionate. Its six contiguous movements eschew the usual contest between the two musical forces, adding the piano's voice to the orchestra itself. 

Mr. Bronfman brought a surprisingly light touch to this demanding music, showing his own prodigious talent and long experience of working with this orchestra. His piano part roved amiably through the opening Adagio before showering the three following fast movements with sparks and flourishes. Under Mr. Valčuha's direction, the March in the finale came off as almost meaningful. Mr. Bronfman led the way through Liszt's puzzle-box of thematic variations. The final movement finally allowed Mr. Bronfman to flourish and blaze up and down the keyboard as the long set of variations came to a close. 

Although Dvorak completed his Ninth Symphony during his American residency 1893, he returned to live and work in his native Bohemia for another twelve years. That period yielded four tone poems, setting Czech legends with remarkable skill that Liszt himself would probably have approved of. Indeed The Water Goblin dates from 1896, the year that Liszt himself died. It tells of a mother, a daughter and the titular sprite, a malevolent counterpart to the composer's aquatic heroine Rusalka/

The Water Goblin is a complex rondo, an elaborate one-movement span with a complex inner narrative woven into its structure. Mr. Valčuha led a performance that was a compelling argument for including it on more symphonic programs, drawing detailed performances from the woodwinds and brass as he and the orchestra told the chilling story. A crash of percussion retold the fatal moment when the daughter falls into the lake, and a storming, raging orchestra indicated the story's grim ending.

The concert ended with Ravel's La Valse, a repertory staple that allows a conductor to show his skill cuing his way through the composer's complex orchestration. Mr. Valčuha brought the triple-time theme to pensive and sputtering life. He caught the grim humor in this work's central development. Bringing the orchestra into one last frenzy, he lifted his baton high before letting the work crash to its finish in the final, stormy chords. 

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