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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, December 4, 2016

Concert Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Hear Them

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Semyon Bychkov in action. Photo from the artist's website.
A visit to the former New Amsterdam from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam's best known musical export is always an occasion for rejoicing. On Wednesday night, Semyon Bychkov and the Dutch players paired the New York premiere of Theatrum bestiarum by Detlev Glanert with Gustav Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 5 in their return to the big stage of Carnegie Hall.

The Glanert piece required the full force and power of this ensemble: three keyboards (including a large part for organ) an awful lot of wind, brass and percussion, and a vast carpet of strings. The work draws its inspiration in part from the "menagerie" scene that opens Berg's opera Lulu, describing various "human beasts" as if they were on display in a zoo.

This trip to the Tiergarten proved a rocky ride as Mr. Glanert drew freely from the ideas of 20th century masters Mahler, Shostakovich and Schoenberg, quoting each composer freely and remixing ideas into a vast palette, from which he painted in bright colors. It opened with a massive twenty-five note chord that threatened to shake the foundations of this venerable hall, and its highlight was a mysterious repetition of this same chord by the full throated roar of the organ.

However, this singular climax led to the rest of the half-hour work being something of a disappointment, as the orchestra leapt and capered through awkward dances, beating itself against the iron bars of the stave. There was a sense throughout of power actively restrained and a muddle of focus, clarifying only in the sublime fadeout that came in the coda of this single movement.

The Mahler Five is a very different beast, although equally difficult to tame. It is in five huge movements, starting with a funeral march, taken at a slow trudge by Mr. Bychkov. This methodical approach to the music paid dividends in dramatic power, with the tuba providing thunderous punctuation to the descending three-note theme. The movement ended with despair and defeat.

The orchestra picked itself up for the difficult second movement, an argument between a manic, almost shrill utterance from the tutti and a slower, more measured theme in the strings. Glimmerings of light finally appeared in the scherzo, one of Mahler's most playful movements and illustrative of this work's attempt to clamber from gloom to illumination over its long arc and multiple, interrupting trio segments.

Then it was time for the "hit" of this symphony, the slow Adagietto. Mr. Bychkov took this at the same measured tread as the first movement, drawing rich details from the string section as the rest of the orchestra sat silently by. He led directly into the Rondo, a vast and absurd finale that celebrates life just as the first movement celebrates death.

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