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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 14, 2017

Concert Review: Our Dancing Hath Turned to Mourning

Leonard Slatkin pays homage to Leonard Bernstein at the Philharmonic.
Leonard Slatkin. Photo by Donald Dietz.
In the history of the New York Philharmonic, no music director casts a longer shadow than Leonard Bernstein. The Lenny legend started with a breakthrough performance at Carnegie Hall when the 25-year-old assistant subbed in for an ailing Bruno Walter in a concert that was nationally broadcast. This week, the New York Philharmonic ended Bernstein's Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival on a high note indeed. This  three-week salute to its former boss (who turns 100 this year) culminated in a program conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The concert (heard Saturday night) featured Richard Strauss' Don Quixote (featured on that afternoon in 1943) paired with Bernstein's third and final symphony, Kaddish.

Although a stellar example of the Straussian art of illustration through orchestration, Don Quixote is not programmed often. Its demands are fearsome on performers and conductors alike. Among its requirements, a virtuoso solo cellist to play the good Don himself and a trio of instruments: tenor tuba, bass clarinet and solo violist, all taking the part of his faithful retainer Sancho Panza. The large orchestra unfolds Cervantes' tale over an ambitious structure: three initial themes followed by ten ornate and colorful variations. 

Here, the Philharmonic offered Carter Brey and Cynthia Phelps as the two string soloists. Mr. Brey's cello engaged in call-and-response with the orchestra, as Mr. Slatkin conjured the windmills, bleating sheep and a raging waterfall with a wave of his baton. The epic work propelled itself forward with good humor, although the arching narrative of Strauss' work seemed occasionally chopped and forced. The final redemption, where the knight regains his sanity was touchingly played, a scene of domestic tranquility that anticipated Strauss' later, more autobiographical efforts. 

If Don Quixote is a crowd-pleaser, the Symphony No. 3 by Leonard Bernstein has always had a whiff of obligation about it. It is a most serious work, in which the composer grapples with two conflicts: his own relationship with his father Samuel Bernstein, and the Lord God Almighty. Bernstein got the idea for the symphony in his time as music director. However, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the work suddenly took on a new dimension of mourning. It has never quite recovered from that association, and remains the most unjustly neglected example of the composer at the height of his powers. 

Soprano Tamara Wilson was a good candidate to articulate the more operatic passages of this work, although her contribution was overwhelmed by the presence of the chorus and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Indeed, the choristers could be seen turning during the piece, supplying extra internal direction through Bernstein's knottiest passages and giving voice to the all-important sacred Hebrew text that is the work's heart. They were accompanied by the Philharmonic players showing the same enthusiasm for Bernstein's music that they have throughout this entire three week event, as if to say yes, this is important music and a piece that is well worth further hearing. 

The most controversial feature of the symphony is Bernstein's use of a narrator, speaking a text which the composer wrote himself. Here, Jeremy Irons' warm, stentorian and cultivated voice may seem to be an unlikely candidate for crying in the wilderness but his narration drove the piece forward, introducing each section of the sung text. At turns mournful, reflective, yearning and just plain angry, Mr. Irons brought raw emotion to the surface behind his famed, civilized veneer.

The function of the narrator in the Kaddish Symphony is similar to that of the soprano in the final movement of the Verdi Requiem. Their job is to look God right in the empyrean eye, and to stand for humanity as counsel in this cosmic court. With Mr. Irons, the Philharmonic chose the sort of effective representation one would hope with all of humanity hanging in the balance. As the work moved into its penultimate crescendo, Mr. Irons stood stock-still. He was trying not to smile or react at the rolling tide of major-key choral sound that was crashing right behind his back: the sound of the Philharmonic at full flight under Mr. Slatkin's expert baton. 

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