Friday, April 22, 2011

More romance

The ASO, conducted by guest Julian Kuerti, presented a program including:

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 4

MENDELSSOHN: Calm Sea & Prosperous Voyage

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F

WAGNER: Overture to The Flying Dutchman
The soloist in the Rachmaninov was Simon Trpceski. 

For reasons that I can only guess, the ASO has had a string of not-so-well-known guest conductors of late.  Not that that is inherently bad and everyone has to start somewhere.  But where are the Tilson-Thomases, the Janssons, etc.  Probably the first tier from Europe don’t treasure the trip to the States, and probably too expensive.  While travel might not be the issue for the top tier of American conductors, travel might still be a deterrent.  May the best are also very, very expensive.  Again, nothing wrong with having the newbies and sometimes they can really pay off.
Mr. Kuerti seemed capable enough.  He did not hesitate to give orders to the musicians and his conducting style was a bit reminiscent of Ormandy.  But I will stop there. 

The Mendelssohn was competently played.  It is not an exciting piece probably because it’s representing a calm sea.  Maybe the program would have been better without it, and maybe the Wagner would have been a bit more exciting for a starter. 

The Rachmaninov, composed in 1926 and revised in 1941, was the most contemporaneous piece played, but the heart of the music is definitely rooted in the late 1800s.  To my ear, this piece doesn’t seem to break new ground, in comparison for example, to his early concertos but many say otherwise.  They talk of the jazz influences in the music and the apparent influence of Scriabin.  All of that may be true, but it wasn’t such a break with the composer’s style that it sounds particularly modern or inventive.  Trpceski played admirably as did the ASO.  In fact, there is a portion of the score where the first violins play a solo line.  They sounded shimmery and precise.  They seemed to have been well-rehearsed to carry this off so effectively.  Rachmaninov usually includes quite a bit of percussion in his music.  They sounded great in the acoustics of symphony hall.   Rachmaninov was closely associated with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski and Ormandy.  There is some unintended irony in this piece being played on the heels of that great Orchestra’s request for Chapter 11 protection.

The Beethoven is a splendid piece.  It is happy, melodic, and rather short piece.  It does not receive the attention that the great Seventh or Ninth Symphonies do, but all three are powerful works.  Kuerti acquitted himself well in this piece.  But he seemed to pay too much attention to the violins, and maybe not enough to the brass.  To my ear, the trumpets were occasionally a bit too loud.  For my vantage point, I was able to focus a bit of my attention on the bass section.  These are certainly an ignored group in most orchestras, but watching them bow some the fast notes in the Beethoven was enjoyable to watch.  Those people really had to work!  Because everything is so much larger on a bass, the movements of the players must also be larger in comparison to the violins or violas.  I was impressed with their industriousness and skill. Beethoven makes use of the tympani quite a lot in this work.  There is something about the acoustics in Symphony Hall that makes they tympani sound muddy and unfocused. 

The Eight has some nicely syncopated rhythms.  It was fun to see Principal Clarinetist Laura Ardan’s bounce in time to the music even while she was not playing.
The Wagner seemed sort of tacked on at the end of the program, maybe in part to make up for the short Eighth.  I was very surprised to see that the last time The Flying Dutchman was played by the ASO was in 1966!    And, come to think of it, Wagner does not seem to be a staple in the orchestra’s repertoire.  If that is indeed the case, I am surprised.  It’s not as though it is cutting-edge music.  This performance provided an opportunity for the low brass to shine, if you will pardon the pun.  The trombones and the single tuba were razor sharp in their attacks and they had great ensemble.  It was good to hear them spotlighted. 
In typical Atlanta fashion, there was a standing O after the Rachmaninov and the Beethoven.  Really, folks, the performers won’t mind being called back if you remain in your seats while applauding.  Save the standing for something really spectacular as was heard last week in the Tchaikovsky Violin concerto. 

On my drive home, I heard the New York Philharmonic play Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony No. 2. It is wonderful to hear their precise where everything seems so together.  But I digress.

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