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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.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Concert Review: Laughter on Tenth Avenue

Pablo Heras-Casado returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A subway musician: Pablo Heras-Casado underground.
Photo by Ari Maldonado.
The Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado has made a hell of a splash in New York, since arriving in 2011 to take over the helm of the Orchestra of St. Luke's. He has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and at Carnegie Hall, earning enthusiastic accolades from reviewes for his fresh approach to music-making and stylish podium presence. On Friday afternoon, Mr. Heras-Casado conducted the New York Philharmonic in a traditional, conservative and satisfying program featuring the music of Béla Bartók, Max Bruch and Antonín Dvořák.

The program opened with Bartók's first arguable orchestra "hit", the Dance Suite. This six-movement work was the result of the composer's tireless field work researching ethnic music in his native Hungary, a nation that has always been a multicultural crossroads of eastern Europe. The movements incorporate rhythms from Hungary, Wallachia and even far-away Arabia, evidence of Bartok's considerable skill as an orchestrator and deep-seated musical curiosity.

Mr. Heras-Casado led a performance with snap and panache, as the Philharmonic players gleefully bit into the taut rhythms and exotic keys that pepper the score. The conductor brought his players to an ecstatic frenzy, transporting the listener from the staid and sterile box of David Geffen Hall to some village fireside, letting one imagine Bartok's tireless pen as he scribbled down some Magyar violin theme or observed a dance somewhere in Slovakia. The final movement ended with a sense of transportive glee, as all the themes came and wove themselves together in a grand final statement.

Next, the Philharmonic's concertmaster Frank Huang took the solo part in the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. This German composer's greatest "hit" is a favorite with audiences, written for the bow of Joseph Joachim. Initially the work was a failure. Bruch incorporated Joachim's suggestions and revised the work, and it has occupied a firm place in the repertory since 1867. This was the version heard here. It has an unconventional structure: three movements with the first two played as a continuous flow of sound in the Wagnerian mold.

When his instrument entered, Mr. Huang worked closely with the woodwinds and laying out the thematic material in the opening Prelude. He was accompanied with a taut performance from Mr. Heras-Casado, who drove luxuriant orchestral accompaniment part forward with a sure hand, never encroaching or drowning out the soloist. Mr. Huang revealed a sweet, singing tone as the first movement blended into the second, with Mr. Heras-Casado making room for the violin's key statements. Conductor and soloist took the finale head-on, playing with gusto through the complicated, acrobatic double-stops and the surging dance theme that dominates the last movment.

This current New York Philharmonic season is heavily weighted toward Dvořák, with the "New World Symphony" forming an overarching theme throughout the schedule. However, this performance gave good support to the idea that the Symphony No. 7 may be his greatest work in the genre. This is the most serious of Dvořák's mature symphonies, with an intellectual rigor and sober purpose that recalls the composer's friend and supporter Johannes Brahms. That said, the genius of this work is entirely the composer's own, with a freshness and warmth that recalls the composer's Bohemian roots and that nation's own unique sensibility when it comes to matters orchestral.

Mr. Heras-Casado gave a broad and straight-laced account of this score, helped by a rich and energetic performance from the Philharmonic brass. The horns were particularly sweet of tone here, answered by contrasting growls from lower instruments in the strings and brass. The slow movement (a homage to the composer's late mother) was a wellspring of emotion, with the orchestra unrolling a wide, dark carpet of sound as a mourning shroud. The Scherzo was stately and serious, a ceremonial dance. In the fourth movement, grief was shouldered and the music moved ahead with relentless power, building to a bright final resolve.

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