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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Concert Review: Trailing Clouds of Glory...

The Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia comes to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sorceress: Martha Argerich casts a spell.
Photo @ Warmer Brothers Classics.
Any visit to Carnegie Hall by a major international orchestra is cause for excitement. This week, the visitors are Rome’s own Orchestra of the National Academy of St. Cecilia, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano. The guest soloist for Friday night's concert: Martha Argerich. This legendary Argentiniean pianist is more than an audience favorite. Now 76, her skill, reculsivity and flat refusal to give solo recitals in the later part of her career has made her a modern concertizing legend. This was her first visit to the Perelman Stage in nine years.


Although the St. Cecilias were formed (in 1908) for the purpose of presenting symphonic repertory to Italian audiences, the evening began with an operatic rarity. This was the once-forgotten, original Overture to the Verdi opera Aida. For the first four the music is  the same as what is heard so many times in the opera house: pensive repetitions of the heroine’s leitmotif against surging cellos and  it takes a left turn into weighty reminiscences from the operas first act. For those who know Aida, this is little more than a series of musical spoilers that Verdi himself  was wise to leave on e composing-room floor.

The excitement reached a fever pitch when Ms, Argerich took the stage to play one of her best known showpieces, the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No, 3. She sounded youthful and exuberant in the first movement, a burst of fireworks from her fingers against the complex accompaniment of the full orchestra. This is one of the composers most listener-friendly pieces, and the presence of the august soloist, not to mention the skill of her accompanist combined for a thrilling ride. Pianist and orchestra entered a funhouse together, screaming and slamming through sudden changes if tempo and surges up the keyboard before rising to a blissful climax and recapitulation.

The slow movement allowed the St. Cecilia players to show their skill and versatility, accompanying the piano through a set of five variations. Sir Antonio (he is of Italian extraction but London-born) brought different colors and textures to the accompaniment under the main line of the solo piano. The work closed with another display of flying colors: a riotous allegro that required nimbleness and daring from the soloist. In her eighth decade, qualities that Ms. Argerich has both qualities in in abundance.

When one reaches the level of fame (and infrequency of appearance) of an artist of this caliber, it is prudent to speculate whether people come and pay to see her for the performance itself of pro for the prestige of having seen such a rare bird utter its song, Certainly, her more ardent and adroit fans were among those stuck outside Stern Auditorium for her encore. Taken with Mr, Pappano sitting at her left, this was a four-handed arrangement of a movement from Maurice Ravel’s Ma mere L'Oye, delicate spinnakers of sound that teased and enchanted the ear.

The reputation of this orchestra is entwined with the 20th century orchestral works of Ottorino Respighi. Here the players offered two sets of tone poems, the Fountains of Rome and the Pines of Rome. Using massive orchestra, an abbondanza of brass instruments, exotic percussion and even taped bird-song, these portraits are immersive and addictive, among the most popular large scale orchestral pieces of a century ago. Conductor and orchestra played these showpieces with sincerity and power, topping Pines with three legions of offstage brass players, blowing the praises of a Rome gone by from various perches within the Hall.

The two encores that followed were far more interesting, First up was Sibelius’ Valse triste, one of the Finnish composer's most eloquent outpourings. It showed the strength and heart of the St. Cecilia string players, who were somewhat overwhelmed by the blaring brass in the Pines of Rome. As a fast finale, Mr, Pappano offered an allegro counterweight, the lithe final section of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. some of the glitterati chuckled at this as they headed to their suburban existence, associating this magnificent music with the old television show The Lone Ranger. They missed eloquent, crisp strings and brass and a hearty brand of music-makingnthat seems to be this orchestra’s calling card. It was most welcome indeed. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.