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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, December 27, 2016

The Year In Reviews 2016: Orchestral Concerts

The best bombast of the year that was.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Simon Rattle did his last tour with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Photo © 2016 Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.
Although this has been a dreadful year in many ways, it's been a good year for classical concerts. Here are ten memorable orchestra concerts reviewed on Superconductor in 2016. And we promise, nobody died during them. As always, links lead to full reviews, all written on Superconductor.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra
"Under Mr. Nézet-Séguin's enthusiastic leadership, Mr. Gruber's work was engaging and playful, with each bar containing a nod and a wink to the occasionally bemused audience. It is a radical reworking of Johann Strauss' Perpetuum Mobile Polka, with sped and slowed tempos, crazy shifts in orchestration and concerto like passages for tuba and thunder machine. Having had his little joke, Mr. Nézet-Séguin turned to the audience and urged them to stay for "three more minutes" as he conducted the original Strauss polka. As he wound it down to silence he turned to the audience and quipped "Life...goes on."

Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel
 Mr. Dudamel left the choir standing as he launched the final Adagio, a slow-crawling love song that started in the low strings before rising in a tide of sound. (They slowly sat as the music swelled.) Of particular interest here was how the conductor cued the various string sections to cease and yield to the next in a great, canonic song of love. Eventually, Mahler's score added woodwinds and brass, with the horns calling out a readjusted, version of the opening motto theme, resolved into blissful major after its journey through the cosmos.

Messiaen at the New York Philharmonic
Mr. Salonen struck a perfect balance between the titanic orchestra, the solo piano, the ondes Martenot and a second percussion section played at stage right. Most importantly, he maintained a central narrative thread over the ten movements, showing the concise logic in each movement and how Messiean builds soloists, players and ultimately, the listener into an eventual state of ecstasy.

Christian Arming leads the NJSO
"The Siegfried Idyll 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."

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra invades Leningrad
The battle culminated in a face-off between the "German" and "Russian" forces, a grand battle of horn sections seated on opposite sides of the Carnegie stage. Mr. Jansons kept these huge forces under tight rein, keeping the rhythmic snap in the long arching buildup, playing the clash of titanic weapons out in the orchestra with huge blasts of horns sounding like alarms and klaxons in the rubble of the city.

Bernard Haitink's Mahler Ninth
The Rondo-Burleske had something of the apocalyptic, as Mr. Haitink urged the players forward in an intense and animated performance. Chivvying strings and educations from trumpets and horns battered oat the senses in a celebration that anticipated the violent later symphonies of Shostakovich. The tuba anchored the bottom end here as the brass players had an absolute field day battling the strings for control of the awkward main theme.

Mostly Mozart explores Bach and Webern
The second half started with another Bach arrangement: Anton von Webern's setting of the Ricercare from The Musical Offering. Incorporating harp, trombone, English horn and other instruments not generally used in Bach's music, this is is the sound of the early 20th century voicing the music if the 18th. Played with slow majesty and relish by the Mostly Mozart musicians, this work ed the influence of Bach's voicings and phrasings on the complex modern music of the Second Viennese School.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra opens the 92nd St. Y
The concert closed with the Symphony No. 2 in B Flat Major, penned by a 17-year-old Franz Peter Schubert. The St. Paul players made an excellent case for this work to be returned from the back corners of Schubert's vast catalogue. It has the spontenaety and song fullness of this composers better known works, but only appears in centennial celebrations of or the rare complete cycle of this composer’s extraordinary symphonies.

The London Symphony Orchestra in Newark
"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."

Sir Simon Rattle's Farewell with the Berlin Philharmonic
"Sir Simon and his players pulled out all the proverbial stops for the final Marsch, which starts with a mutter in the clarinet that yields a relentless rhythm that quickly infects the rest of the orchestra. The relentless pulse attacked the senses, moving through woodwinds and brass. Finally the percussion entered, with timpani, gran casa and tam-tam deployed with devastating and overwhelming force."

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