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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.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Concert Review: Ain't Love Grand

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Berlioz and Mahler.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Dude abides: Gustavo Dudamel at work.
Photo by Chris Lee.
The Vienna Philharmonic gave the second concert of its three-night 2019 stand at Carenegie Hall on Saturday night. The program was unusual for this venerable orchestra: the slow movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 paired with a Berlioz favorite, the hyper-romantic Symphonie fantastique.

If there is a common thread here, it is that both compositions were created as their authors were suffering through a gamut of emotions. In Mahler's case, it was learning of his wife Alma's affair with the architect Walter Gropius, which drove him to the couch of one Dr. Sigmund Freud. The Tenth does exist in several completed versions, but here the Vienna players chose to play just the Adagio, the one movement that the composer completed before his death.

It is the setting of a simple Austrian folk melody, stretched to improbably length as a minor key lament for the strings. It builds from just a few violins before the great tide of orchestrations swells, rolls and breaks upon the listener in a chorale for the horns and heavy brass. Mr. Dudamel, who has explored the symphonic canon of Mahler for much of his podium career seemed to have a new maturity in this performance, and the weight and authority of the trumpets, trombones and tuba brought the emotional weight of this work home.

When Mahler died, he left only the orchestrated (though not revised) Adagio, and a bit of the Purgatorio movement that forms the centerpiece of the Tenth. However, instead of playing the whole work in one of its completed edition, Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra opted for the Symphonie fantastique. This is a five-movement love letter to the English actress Harriet Smithson that put its creator, Hector Berlioz, on the musical map.

Berlioz wrote the Fantastique as a projection of his obsessive and unrequited love for la Smithson, an Irish actress who he had seen play Ophelia in a Paris production of Hamlet. (They later married and divorced.) The first two movements evoke the meeting and affair of these two would-be lovers. The bleak third is a country scene that evokes desolation and despair through the use of a solo English horn. And then it gets positively phantasmagorical, a two-movement nightmare in which our hapless hero is marched to the scaffold, summarily executed and then forced to participate in a Witch's Sabbath including a sonorous Dies irae for the tuba section.

Mr. Dudamel opted for a measured reading of the first movement that sustained excitement while bringing out fine orchestral details for the listener to consider. The Vienna strings and famous, all-male horn players were to the fore here, the sweet tone of their instruments belying the darkness to come. With Un bal, the entire enterprise seemed on sure footing as the orchestra lurched into Berlioz's warped vision of high society dance. The third movement, with its shepherd's pipes and sense of existential dislocation was chilling, particularly the ominous timpani rolls at the end.

The heavy brigade did most of the work in the March to the Scaffold, with the orchestra breaking into ironic, celebratory fanfares that would have made Mahler smile. Slithering, tapping and chittering strings produced the manic opening of the Witches' Sabbath, with the romantic theme of the symphony twisted into a horrible leer by the oboes and flutes.

Then came the famous Dies irae, lurching out of the tubas and answered by the solemn peal of bells. The whole band took demonic flight at this point, bringin gte work toa catharsis. Then, following applause, Mr. Dudamel returned to the podium for the obligatory Strauss waltz, following the Viennese policy of always aiming to please.

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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.