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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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Concert Review: Their Business is Rejoicing

The London Symphony Orchestra at NJPAC.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Miracle man: conductor Gianandrea Noseda in action.
Photo © 2016 Teatro Regio di Torino.
The London Symphony Orchestra are in transition. Valery Gergiev left for a post in Munich, and the orchestra awaits the arrival of its next chosen leader, Sir Simon Rattle, in 2017. Their current North American tour (which stopped at Prudential Hall in Newark on Saturday night) is lead by associate principal conductor Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian maestro who has worked operatic miracles in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera in recent years, and will soon be known to American audiences as the newly minted leader of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.

Mr. Noseda began the concert with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This is perhaps the most ebullient curtain-raiser in the Wagner canon. Here, it featured the sonorous tone of the LSO horns, answered by the upswell of the strings before the trumpets led a bold and dignified march. The glory of this performance was the complicated fugue section in the middle, started by the piccolo and flute and eventually giving way to an extended solo for the tuba.

The orchestra was then joined by Yuja Wang, the Chinese-born pianist who combines formidable technique with youthful energy. Her task: the three-movement Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel, which offers complicated knots for the soloist to untangle but also demands an orchestra that is at the peak of its powers. Ms. Wang responded with a quicksilver performance in the first movement, accompanied with a welcome and transparent sound from the ensemble.

The slow movement is much more difficult than it sounds, its easy, flowing theme the product of endless revisions and tweaks by its meticulous creator. Ms. Wang did honor to this complex creation with a performance that sounded effortless and yet full of rich meaning. The short sonata-form finale gave her opportunities to display keyboard fireworks, with Mr. Noseda urging the orchestra forward in an explosion of sound.

Following the Concerto, Ms. Wang returned to the stage for a triple encore. She opened with Vladimir Horowitz' flashy transcription of the Gypsy Song from Act II of Carmen, taking the repetitions as opportunity for blazing runs down the keyboard and hard-stabbed chords that indicated the stomp and shake of Romany boots. A gentle Chopin Waltz followed before one last grand finale: Fazil Say's breakneck variation on Mozart's Turkish March. Dazzling stuff, though it seemed to try the patience of a few in the string secion.

Dmitri Shostakovich was at his height in 1936. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was a substantial hit, and his Fourth Symphony was in rehearsal, ready for its debut. And then the roof fell in. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin attended a performance of Lady Macbeth and let his displeasure be known in the next day's issue of Pravda. An editorial, "Muddle Instead of Music" attacked Shostakovich. Shaken, the composer decided to withdraw his Fourth and, recycling some of its musical material, began work on the Fifth. This proved to be an optimistic, proletarian work that saved the composer's career (and possibly his life.) It remains among his most popular orchestral creations.

On the surface, Mr. Noseda and the LSO gave a stirring performance of this work, having the huge orchestral force triumph over adversity with aggressive, banner-waving marches driven by the snare drum and brass. And yet, the subtext of the work was here too, in the grim mutterings of the first movement, in the icy, frozen wastes of the almost completely static slow movement, and in that finale, where the trumpets and timpani played with such force as to drive home the idea that this was the work of a composer indulging in irony even as he put on his bravest public face.

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