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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, June 3, 2018

Concert Review: The Bare Necessities

The New York Philharmonic ends its season without a conductor....without a conductor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Concertmaster Frank Huang (center) led the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic.

Things are settling down at America’s oldest orchestra. Alan Gilbert left the New York Philharmonic a year ago. Jaap van Zweden arrives in a cloud of hullabaloo next September. That said, this particular review, of Friday's matinee performance of their last program of this current season was played without a conductor. This program of string pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky had no tuxedo-clad maestro, and there was no post-heroic beating of air with tiny sticks.



This concert was led by concertmaster Frank Huang. He conducted in the 18th century manner: from the first chair of the violins. This archaic approach was helped by a conservative program that sought to shrink the vast, yawning space of David Geffen Hall. That laudable goal was helped by crisp, enthusiastic music making and a carefully placed wooden baffle screen that did much to increase the brightness and detail of the sound from the stage.

The program opened with one of the most popular and mysterious of Mozart’s works: the four surviving movements of his Serenade in G. (No musicologist has discovered exactly why Mozart wrote this piece, which is better known by its proper title: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.) These four famous movements (a second minuet is lost to history) were played with charm and grace by the Philharmonic forces, with Mr. Huang leading the first violins in a delicate series of skipping games over the precision accompaniment of the other instrumental voices. Each movement was met with applause.

More is known about the Third Violin Concerto, a product of Mozart’s early maturity and his teenage stewardship of the orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Here, Sheryl Staples took on the formidable violin part, which includes long, thoughtful soliloquies which spawn a succession of charming thematic ideas. The most impressive part of the performance was that long cadenza that closes the first movement, showing both the human-like quality of the solo violin and the delicate filigree which Mozart imposed on rock-solid classical forms.

The second movement was more delicate, with a searching melody in the violin giving way to a more nimble middle section. The finale was fast and gracious, with Ms. Staples trading thematic ideas with Mr. Huang’s tutti. The strings were supplemented by two horns and two oboes, who offered harmonic  commentary as the music pranced ahead. This was a rare opportunity to hear this artist in a solo capacity, and she did not disappoint the rapt audience.

The last half of the afternoon featured a much less frequently essayed work: Tchaikovsky’s lovely Serenade for Strings.  Here, the composer takes a complex, multi-voiced opening theme, one of the sweetest and most arresting of his melodic ideas, and runs it through four movements of sophisticated variations, echoing the light and entertaining manner of Mozart’s Nachtmusik on a larger architectural scale. The first movement returned to that thematic idea again and again after a series of long harmonic excursions. This set the table for what was to come.

That proved to be was a delicate and charming Waltz, permeated with the same sad drawing-room longing that is heard in works like Eugene Onegin  It would be a music critic’s cheat to describe the slow movement, marked Elegy, as “elegiac” but there it is: the music argued, laughed and wept at the same time in a dazzling shower of notes. The finale was taken attacca, and the slow start from Mr. Huang led to a manic Russian folk dance. Eventually, this theme’s true face was seen, it slowed and darkened to reveal itself as the first theme of the opening movement, before speeding up one last time to a genial close.

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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.