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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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Concert Review: Dark Wood and Silver Linings

The London Philharmonic Orchestra returns to Lincoln Center.
The violinist James Ehnes was the featured soloist on Monday night with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Photo by Benjamin Eolovega courtesy Lincoln Center.
One of the foibles in covering orchestra concerts in New York City is differentiating the five permanent orchestras based in London, England. It is necessary to keep these bands straight from one another in one's own mind, especially since most of them are regularly rotated visitors on the big stage of Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall.  This week it was the turn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, not to be confused with the London Symohony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra or the others. Their appearance was part of this spring's Great Performers at Lincoln Center schedule.

The LPO was founded in 1932 by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as a rival to the London Symohony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic. Its founder’s legacy is its distinctive sound, a warm, rich and dark tone that makes everything they play sound as if it were ensconced in a ritzy London gentlemens’ club. For this program, featuring works by Beethoven, Sibelius and Mahler,mother were led by the conductor Edward Gardner, who is a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera across the plaza.

That distinctive, dark tone was tot he fore in the Beethoven work that opened the program. The Egmont Overture sounds like a movement that wandered away from one of the composers symphonies. It belongs  to Beethoven's middle period and distinguished by its upward surging threnody theme, an optimistic counterpart to the familiar fate motive from the Fifth. It was easy to imagine sketches of three move movements had the composer chosen to stay months creative path. As such it was an effective curtain-raiser.

Next, the orchestra was joined by violinist James Ehnes for the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Radical in its construction and shot through with that peculiar blend of grandiose gesture and warm, folksy emotion that characterizes Sibelius best music, this concerto is a concert evergreen, and rightly so. Mr. Ehnes waxed loquacious in the solo passages of the opening movement, his violin seeking a higher truth between the lines of the stave. The gentle middle movement was followed by the finale, the sound of Arctic creatures getting down-home in a ballet with few witnesses.

Mr. Ehnes followed this performance with a double encore. First came Eugene Ysaye’s Violin Sonata No. 3,  slice of lyric Romanticism executed as a series of hair -aising technical challenges. He followed with Bach: the slow movement from the Sontata No, 3.  This silver thread of sound spanned the abyss of silence like the first cable thrown from a great bridge, the superstructure of the music gradually emerging and growing organically from the first melodic line,

With the performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1, Mr, Gardner became the focus. He chose to cage the "twittering" bird-songs of the opening movement, keeping the little side trips and deviations from the central melodic idea on a very tight rein. This movement was brisk but not brusque. By confining all the little melodic figures to short, succinct phrases, Mr, Gardner created a sense of excitement and anticipation as the horns entered and rose to a majestic fortissimo. The dance movement (”Under Full Sail”) took a similar approach, with Mahler's dancing, lurching orchestra spinning by the listener at a rapid clip.

Next came the famous funeral march. (Its use of the children's song “Frere Jacques" seems all the more poignant in the aftermath of this weeks Notre Dame fire.) Of course, this kids' tune is also a thinly disguised Dies irae chant, which morphs into an elegiac klezmer melody and goes through several more transformations before fading to silence. The finale of this symphony is especially challenging for players and audiences alike. It is where most performances of this piece go off the rails. Here, Mr. Gardner's taut conducting and business-like approach kept the long thematic statement and its equally massive repetition from being more than just a lot of blown hot air. At the end, horns rose in triumph, bringing this grand and often frustrating symphony to the climax that it richly deserves.

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