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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, April 23, 2019

Concert Review: A Night Out With Your Old Boss

Pablo Heras-Casado returns to the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pablo Heras-Casado (standing) seen here leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's
returned to Carnegie Hall last Thursday night. Photo by Ferrando Sancho from the conductor's website. 
The tenure of Pablo Heras-Casado, for the first seven years of this decade at the helm of the Orchestra of St. Luke's was, by and large a positive one. It boosted the reputation of this excellent New York orchestra and gave the young conductor a chance to be heard on the biggest stages of New York. On Thursday night, Mr. Heras-Casado returned to the podium at Carnegie Hall to conduct the OSL in a program that looked forward and back, embracing the best of 20th century neo-classicism and continuing the ensemble's ongoing deep dive into the major works of Franz Joseph Haydn.

The concert started with Serge Prokofiev's brisk and concise Symphony No. 1. Written by the composer as a bit of a self-imposed challenge (on a summer vacation without access to a piano), this quirky work throws back to the earliest symphonies, before the work became the forum of choice for Germanic world-builders to create works lasting well over an hour. Its four movements are engaging miniatures, filigreed and fine but with the steel of pure musical logic belying the delicate outward appearance.

Mr. Heras-Casado recognized the solid structure beneath this work's display and led a performance that followed those clean lines precisely. That didn't stop the strings and horns of the Orchestra from commenting, sometimes to ribald effect on the main structures of the work. Delicate, bobbing notes from the flute and clarinet, and a pizzicato section where the strings trade places with the agile motion of a bassoon are highlights of its first movement. The remainder had the same feel of pure logic, joyfully executed at a high technical standard.

With its kaleidoscopic orchestral effects and restless solo part, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G is short but athletic, a taxing challenge for anyone who dares to climb its dizzying heights and jazzy snap-rhythms. Here, that was the task of Helene Grimaud, whose fingers seemed to skate and slide through the carefully wrought passages even as woodwinds and percussion commented on her journey. She showed that this work is more than just precision construction and fancy technical flash, penetrating to the warm, beating heart of this music.

After a furious opening assault, the music shifted to a halting, stuttering walk. Then a trumpet sounded, calling the solo piano off to the rhythmic, restless races. The music surged forward with conductor and soloist both leading the way. Mr. Heras-Casado expertly cued the orchestral support as the piano sallied forth, Ms. Grimaud's hands moving with blinding speed. The gentle central Adagio offered some respite in its dreamy, pseudo-Impressionist colors that soothed the listener. Athleticism returned in the final Presto, as the piano launched itself into the frontal assault pursued by a halloo and cry from trumpet and clarinet. This movement is a cross between round and variation, with each snare-drum roll sounding the charge into the next, dizzying variation. Things were light and playful til the end, belying the hard work and ability needed to play this music.

Stravinksy's Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra isn't programmed much: its four movements add up to just five minutes of music. It is also recycled Stravinsky, its music drawn from the composer's Five Easy Pieces for four hands, written for the composer's children to aid them in their study of the piano. He later selected four of the works and expanded their sound to a chamber-sized orchestra. Mr. Heras-Casado found the depth and humor in each of these cynical little instrumentals, from the faux-Italian dance of the Napolitana to the humorous and insistent rhythm of the Balalaika at the end of the work.

The concert ended with Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the penultimate among the composer's exercises in the genre and one of his more popular works. It bears the nickname "Drum roll", borne out by an ominous opening roll on the timpani. This launched the first movement, a playful, skipping allegro conducted in strict sonata form. Mr. Heras-Casado launched the Andante in a similar, jocular vein, walking the melody up by little half-steps and inc easing the sense of expectation in the hall. The declarative Menuet favored courtly dancing over lyricism, with traces of the Austrian peasant ländler in its clod-hopping rhythm. The finale and the concert ended in a fast finale, led off by the horns into a steeple-chase through another set of dazzling variations on a central musical idea.

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