The ASO had as guest conductor Gilbert Varga (http://www.intermusica.co.uk/artists/conductor/gilbert-varga/biography) and piano soloist Pedja Muzijevic (http://www.pedjamuzijevic.com/schedule.html). The program included:
SCHUBERT: Overture in C minor
MOZART: Concerto No. 17 in G Major
J. STRAUSS, JR.: Emperor Waltz
R. STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel
Here is the easy stuff. Varga has great hair and haircut. He wore a long coat with a vest and it looked good. He has a very elegant baton technique, that is, he is very graceful while waving the little stick. Muzijevic wore one of those band-collared coats that they use in science fiction movies when they are guessing what men’s clothing will look like in the future. You might want to recall Paul Rieser in “Aliens” for reference.
Now to the more difficult stuff. This program was like eating Wonder Bread. It was fluffy with little of substance, at least for me. It was just an a few degrees away from being a pops concert. The Schubert was originally written as a string quartet but gradually morphed into a piece for an all-string chamber orchestra, which is the version used by the ASO. This piece has Schubert’s characteristic charming melodies that are a feast to the ears. The ASO strings performed capably, but their sound was lost in the Symphony Hall acoustics. I found it difficult to pay attention, since the sound seemed far away- somewhat like background music in a hotel lobby.
The Mozart was well done. It’s not one of Mozart’s most frequently played works. It has the usual Mozartian concerto structure, with elegant melodies and development. Sometimes I think that Mozart found his composing “schtick” and worked it over and over. Pretty, yes- but it presented nothing particularly new or intriguing for me. Muzijevic seemed timid during the usual Atlanta standing ovation. In fact, Varga moved the pianist in front of himself in order to accept the crowd’s applause.
After intermission, Varga conducted the Emperor Walzes. Either the ASO was not really engaged, or Varga was not inspired, or both, but this was a leaden performance. Where was the lilt? Where was the slight hold on Strauss’ high notes, just before they cascade down? Such a brief pause gives the waltz a subtle elegance that makes it more than just a straightforward ¾ count. In the violin section, the first four chairs really dig into the music with their whole body. Most of the other violinists look like they are sawing at their instruments with their attention fully glued to the score in front of them. They play the notes, but do not seem particularly invested in them. That’s one reason, at least for me, that the music seemed too weighty. In addition, the French horns had intonation problems so much that two members of the winds looked at each other with a slight wince. I finally figured out who the culprit is, but no point in pointing fingers. That’s the job of the Music Director.
The “Till” performance was engaging. It is a fun piece of music that does not require a great deal of brain power to enjoy. The ASO performed admirably, even the French horns. The percussion section was in full force and the bass drum was wonderful!
During the drive back to my home after the concert, the New York Philharmonic weekly concert was on WABE. The orchestra was playing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Now that is a challenging piece for both orchestra and listener. It is raw music composed to make a point to the Soviet government and its citizens. This was a powerful performance, even in the confines of my car. It made me wish that Varga had challenged himself a bit more