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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Concert Review: He's Ready For His Close-Up

Frank Huang takes the spotlight at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Taking solo flight: concertmaster Frank Huang at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic. 
The New York Philharmonic welcomed conductor Juraj Valčuha to its podium on Wednesday night. The Slovak conductor led a program which focused on the particular confluence of European and American music that characterized the first half of the 20th century, in a program of works by Korngold, Rachmaninoff and Samuel Barber.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a genius, with few composers matching him for the level of virtuosity and compositional ability that he displayed from an early age. Here, Mr. Valčuha opened the concert with his Much Ado About Nothing suite, written as incidental music for a production of that Shakespeare play when the composer was 23. At that point he had already written what would become his most famous opera Die tote Stadt, and the wonders and fame of Hollywood awaited.

This suite is in five movements, providing an accompaniment to the Shakespeare comedy where the bickering of two would-be lovers provides contrast to a tale of petty jealousy and redemption. These short movements, placed together create an informal symphonic structure, with the comic music for Dogberry and his night watchmen providing a scherzo worthy of Mahler. Mr. Valčuha led an orchestra missing its double basses and heavy brass, as the efficient Korngold relied on chamber orchestra forces to create this airy and lyrical music.

"Airy and lyrical" are apt words to describe the descending violin cadenza that opens Samuel Barber's lone Violin Concerto. This technically demanding work held few terrors for soloist Frank Huang, who, when he is not dazzling with fleet bowing and fast fingers serves as the Philharmonic's concertmaster. Mr. Huang and Mr. Valčuha were in close accord in the first movement, as the orchestra provided complex and subtle accompaniment. Barber's mastery of orchestral effect was evident and brought to clarity by the conductor's efforts.

Another soloist was featured in the second movement: associate principal oboe Sherry Sylar who has faced a heavier workload this season with the abrupt departure of Liang Wang. She was answered by Mr. Huang's instrument, setting up a complex yet friendly conversation between these two contrasting musical ideas. This Andante led to a fast finale that placed exponential technical demands on Mr. Huang's shoulders, demands that were met with fire and flash. He unleashed all of his musical powers to charge through this difficult finish.

Sergei Rachmaninoff spent the last years of his life as an exile in America. The rise of Bolshevism had forced him to flee (by sled) to Helsinki with his family and a bundle of his music manuscripts. An international career as a virtuoso followed, with his long fingers and astonishing dexterity allowing him to make a living as an interpreter of his own music as well as that of others. But World War II closed Europe to him, and he found himself living on Manhattan's Upper West Side with a summer place in the Hamptons. It was there that he started his last work, the Symphonic Dances.

That title belies the true nature of these pieces: weighty, death-obsessed works that weep with the voice of a large orchestra. The Dies irae chant passes through each of the three movements, its grim descent sounding subtly in the woodwinds before appearing full-blast in the trombones and tuba in the final movement. Mr. Valčuha brought the thunder in each of these movements, retaining their taut form and allowing the orchestra to express itself in thunderous, wondrous sound.

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