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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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Concert Review: The Celebrity Apprentice

Christoph Eschenbach conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph Eschenbach. Photo © 2016 IMG Artists.
Most reviewers see concerts, and especially those by the New York Philharmonic, on opening night. But there's something to be learned from going to the Tuesday night performance of a concert program. Would the musicians, having played a piece all weekend be on orchestral autopilot? Or will they add that extra grain of inspiration in their last collaboration of the season with a well-known guest conductor.

On Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall, the Philharmonic offered their fourth and final performance of a program of Dvořák and Bartok under the baton of pianist-turned-conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Mr. Eschenbach is ending his term as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. He is most celebrated for  his past history as a piano virtuoso and recording artist, and his time as a protége of the late and legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Although he is an accomplished artist, Mr. Eschenbach can be a frustrating and inconsistent conductor.

In the spirit of his mentor, Mr. Eschenbach conducted Antonín Dvořák's Carnival Overture without the benefit of a score. His long, spindly legs danced on the podium as baton, hands and elbows flapped, urging the orchestra on in its depiction of Czech merriment and bursting vitality. For their part, the Philharmonic players offered rude, almost wild energy kept in careful check by the principal string players. Indeed, the players seemed to let Mr. Eschenbach's gesticulations pass without too much performance, seeming to follow the bow of the evening's concertmaster Sheryl Staples.

Both orchestra and conductor were back on the same page for the next work: Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Baiba Skride making the last of her four appearances at these concerts. The first marked the Philharmonic debut of this Latvian violinist, a protége of that country's Gidon Kremer. Ms. Skride is currently playing Mr. Kremer's Stradivarius violin, the "Ex Baron Feilitzsch." Her rich and conversational solo tone made this long concerto breeze, and her instrument's fat, singing tone would have done that artist proud.

Mr. Eschenbach worked from a score here, meeting the details and demands of this complex three-movement concerto. He brought forth the rich and warm textures of supporting strings, winds and percussion accents in the complex long-form first movement. He ensured that the players sung in support of Ms. Skride's solo line. This was a performance that thrilled with its leaps and intervals, as the violinist made Bartók's challenging and gymnastic writing for the instrument move in an engrossing narrative flow.

Ms. Skride handled all of the work's nasty challenges, including the brief microtonal passages in the first movement, the long ruminations of the central slow movement and the third which is a reconstruction of the music first with even more difficulties for the soloist. The slow second movement was the most thrilling, with the rich tone of the Stradivarius squarely to the fore. Fireworks erupted from the soundbox in the finale, which she and Mr. Eschenbach brought to a bright and thunderous close. Following the work, she obliged with an encore, a hypnotic perpetuum mobile that held the audience in its grip.

While Bartók's time in New York was one of struggle and illness, Dvořák lived in this city in relative comfort as the director of the National Conservatory. The Eighth Symphony, written before his arrival on these shores is one of his most vital and energetic works. Here, Mr. Eschenbach once more eschewed the sheet music to lead a boisterous performance of these four movements. However, the performance, while technically correct lacked the sense of distinctive Czech rhythm that can really make the Eighth swing. Even the heroic blurts of sound erupting from the upraised horns could not save the last movement. 

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