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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.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Concert Review: Old School, Young Baton

Christian Arming conducts the NJSO at NJPAC.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Christian Arming.
Photo by Koichu Miura.
On Thursday afternoon at the gorgeous (but never full) New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) it was the turn of Austrian conductor Christian Arming to lead the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in a program of Wagner, Schumann and Brahms. Mr. Arming, a protégé of Seiji Ozawa and the current music director of the Liège Royal Philharmonic in Belgium revealed himself to be a conductor of insight and considerable ability. His skills became apparent early with a slow and transparent reading of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll.

Composed in 1870 as a birthday/Christmas/first anniversary gift for Richard Wagner's secodwife Cosima, the Siegfried Idyll incorporates themes from the Ring Cycle into a 20-minute tone poem. Here, the work was presented in an expanded arrangement for full symphony orchestra and taken at a dead-slow tempo by Mr. Arming. This allowed not only the main thematic ideas to bloom but revealed the leitmotivs from the Ring hidden in the harmony parts: a descending fourth, a repeated staccato horn-call, and of course the spears and magic helmets that populate this mythological cycle. Under Mr. Arming's hand, time stopped for a brief while and the ear was utterly enchanted.

Another inducement to visit Newark was the presence of pianist Stephen Hough for the Schumann Piano Concerto, an old-fashioned war-horse given a curry-comb and a vigorous rub-down by this young conductor. Mr. Hough played the solo part (written for Schumann's beloved wife Clara, one of the greatest virtuosos of the 19th century) with grace, letting the motto theme hang in the air before launching into the lengthy development of the first movement.

A long cadenza passage for Mr. Hough led into the central Intermezzo. This second movement was graceful and gorgeous, slow arcs of sound with Mr. Hough's piano answering the orchestra in perfect balance. Soloist and conductor transited smoothly into the graceful and light-footed final movement, where the opening motto theme is transformed in what might be the happiest orchestral music that Schumann ever wrote.

The highly individual Johannes Brahms was discovered by Schumann in his role as critic with the memorable words "Hats off, gentleman, a genius!" and became his protégé early in his career. Later, Clara became the love of Johannes' life in the years following Schumann's early death, leading to much speculation by scholars today. Taking the mic, Mr. Arming explained that the Second Symphony is the usually gruff Brahms at his most bucolic, a sunny account of an Austrian mountain resort and the simple joys of nature. What followed was strict in its tempos and yet remarkably relaxed.

The two joyous motto themes of the opening movement were tinted with dark minor chords in the trombones, before Brahms began his long, lazy game of tossing short motifs between instruments in a lengthy and largely genial development. The andante and the playful third movement gave way to a mighty finale that burst with energy, the sound of the composer having taken his spa cure and thrusting himself vigorously back into the musical life.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats