BACH: Concerto in D minor
STRAVINSKY: Suite from The Firebird
The Perfectly Awful Atlanta Symphony Hall
The April 1 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert was a mixed blessing. The guest conductor was Krisjan Jarvi along with pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
The Pulcinella suite…..(From Wikipedia) is a ballet by Igor Stravinsky based on an 18th-century play — Pulcinella is a character originating from Commedia dell'arte. The ballet premiered in Paris on 15 May 1920 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. The dancer Léonide Massine created both the libretto and choreography, and Pablo Picasso designed the original costumes and sets. It was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev.
Diaghilev wanted a ballet based on an early eighteenth-century Commedia dell'arte libretto and music he thought was composed by Giovanni Pergolesi. Although the music was then attributed to Pergolesi, much has since proved to be spurious; some of it may have been written by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, and possibly Alessandro Parisotti and Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer. Conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote to Stravinsky in 1919 about the prospect, but the composer initially did not like the idea of music by Pergolesi. However, once he studied the scores, which Diaghilev had found in libraries in Naples and London, he changed his mind. Stravinsky rewrote this older music in a more modern way by borrowing specific themes and textures, but interjecting modern rhythms, cadences and harmonies. Pulcinella is scored for a modern chamber orchestra with soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists. Pulcinella is often considered to be the first piece of Stravinsky's neoclassical period.
To me Stravinsky was the greatest of composers of the 20th century. His three early ballets (The Rite of spring, The Firebird, and Petrushka) changed the course of music and opened the door to new rhythms, chords, dissonance, etc. I was disappointed right at the start of Jarvi’s interpretation. The orchestra seemed disinterested, as did the conductor. He led the orchestra as if he was a human metronome, not giving much direction to the players and not attending to balances. Key sol pieces by the concertmaster and the lead cellist were drowned out by the sound of the orchestra. The rhythms were lax, and the whole piece was marked by excessive legato. The result was a boated, fluffy performance, the aural equivalent of the Sta-Puft marshmallow man. There were also several intonation problems in the French horn, once called “the ill-wind that nobody blow good.” But, an amazing coincidence happened on my drive home that reinforced my view. The local NPR station, in its New York Philharmonic broadcast, carried a mid-1970s recording of Pulcinella conducted by Pierre Boulez. After getting over the somewhat bright acoustics of the recording, it became clear to me why Jarvi’s interpretation displeased me so much. Boulez’s take on the music was characterized by a brisk pace, with lean and disciplined instrumentals. The orchestra was focused and its ensemble was tight. The solo pieces were nicely etched against a more subtle orchestral background than Jarvi produced with the ASO. Boulez also made the music a bit menacing as if the comedy of the story had a dark underside, but isn’t that how comedy is? In addition, the flute work by the Philharmonic winds had a wonderful rich tone, rather than the more metallic sound produced by the ASO.
So, after Pulcinella, I did not have high hopes for the rest of the concert.
After furniture rearranging (something I wish I didn’t have to see), Ms. Dinnerstein appeared with Jarvi to play the Bach concerto. Ms. Dinnerstein’s major claim to fame, and it’s a big one, is based on her Bach interpretations. This concerto, composed in about 1738, is a wonderful example of Bach’s art. It is inventive- it takes its themes and deconstructs them, moves them between the soloist and orchestra, and modifies them within the piano solos and the orchestra separately. It is not “sewing machine music”, like that composed by Bach’s contemporary, Vivaldi. Ms. Dinnerstein has the technical competence to pull off this fairly complicated music. Her greatest strength in this performance, however, was her total control of the dynamics of the piano. She is subtle in using the pianissimos and fortes that Bach used throughout this piece. The same could not be said of Jarvi. He seemed to be conducting without listening to Dinnerstein. At times, the string orchestra again drowned out the soloist, particularly in the Adagio movement. I am always will to blame the lack of balance on the hall, but I am not so sure in this case. Notwithstanding this, Ms. Dinnerstein made the piece enjoyable.
So far, the concert had been a major disappointment, and then came The Firebird. Jarvi’s take on this piece was incredible. From Wikipedia: The Firebird (French: L'Oiseau de feu) is a 1910 ballet by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Michel Fokine. The ballet is based on Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird of the same name that is both a blessing and a curse to its captor. The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's 'breakthrough piece' ("Mark him well", said Diaghilev to Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing the title role: "He is a man on the eve of celebrity..."), but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
Jarvi seemed to revel in the music. He became alive, controlling the orchestra with his movements and facial expressions. He obviously enjoyed the music and the ASO responded accordingly. Their playing was first rate, with only an occasional issue of pitchiness (with all due respect to Randy Jackson). The percussion section was wonderful, as were the trombones and tuba. The latter had a wonderful bite when it was called for. The “Infernal Dance” section always bursts forth from the wonderful rondo that precedes it. This “Infernal Dance” was far more that simply loud. It made the hair on my arms tingle. It was big, bold, and powerful. This was the way a first-rate ensemble would sound. The “Final Hymn” section was also ear opening. Jarvi’s pace was rapid and quite staccato. I was able to hear this familiar music with new ears. His interpretation was powerful and exciting. “The Firebird” performance was worth the price of admission, even in spite of the mediocre that came before it.
I will make just a few other comments. Jarvi’s first wife was Leila Josefowicz, who was soloist with the ASO this year and the Pittsburgh Symphony last year. His daughter’s name is Avalon, which I think is quite nice. Jarvi wore a long black velvet coat, which was nicely tailored to his trim frame. The reason that I comment is that so many conductors today wear tents. And finally, I couldn’t tell who had shinier hair- Jarvi or Dinnerstein, but both were advertisements for healthy hair.