Sunday, January 8, 2012

Polish and Schmaltz

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under Music director Robert Spano, presented the Beethoven Piano concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (the Emperor) and Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major. Pianist Dejan Lazic was the soloist. 

The Beethoven is a cornerstone of the classical music repertory.  It is a stirring yet very lyrical piece, particularly in the second movement adagio.  Lazic is a most talented pianist.  His slightly awkward demeanor when walking on stage might mislead one into thinking that his playing might be equally awkward, but indeed that was not the case.   Here is a pianist who knows how to play equally well a pianissimo and a grand forte.  Too often, pianists boost the small sounds while toning down the big ones.  In contrast, Lazic understands that part of the drama of this piece lies in the contrast.  This also gives the orchestra a challenge, that is, how to not overwhelm the quiet and to not use its brute strength to overwhelm the piano at it’s loudest.   Maestro Spano navigated the orchestra through this musical slalom with great skill.  It is astounding that the sound of Symphony Hall’s air handling equipment was louder than a pianissimo played by the soloist and orchestra combined.  The string section was also remarkable in the Adagio.  They were warm, in control, and had great ensemble.  This section of the orchestra is evolving and improving to a great degree.  Even their involvement in their playing seems to be increasing over time. 

The Elgar is a long (55 minutes or so) work that was once described as “the greatest symphony of modern times.”  Unfortunately, the person passing that judgment was the same person to whom the symphony is dedicated, that is, Hans Richter.  When a symphony is dedicated to me, I am certain that I too will believe it to be the greatest ever.  This is not to say it isn’t a grand work is, but great it is not.  If a work is going to require the listener to dedicate nearly an hour to it, then it ought to say something important and compelling.  Like some of Bruckner’s symphonies, the Elgar seems to me to be in need of some editing.  If it were a bit shorter, many of the patron’s who were snoozing through it might have been energized to actually attend to it.  This aside, the work is a schmaltzy, inflated pastiche of late Romantic music.  Elgar was not a major creative force like Mahler, or the great developer like Brahms.  His music is the musical equivalent of the “stiff upper lip.”  Elgar, best known for the “Pomp and Circumstance” marches, teeters very close to including similar march-like themes into his symphony, particularly in the first and second movements.  While most composers reuse material that they composed elsewhere (e.g., Tchaikovsky often did this), Elgar’s borrowing might be due to a lack of inventiveness rather than to redeploying a worthy idea.  Spano, conducting from the score, keep a forward momentum to the music, in spite of its interminable length.  This is where a great conductor can show his or her mettle, while lesser talents can lose their way and only provide a beat (which was the case with the ASO’s recent performance of the Sibelius First symphony under a guest conductor who was a last minute substitution).  Elgar’s music has a sometimes dark quality that emphasizes the low brass and violas.  These sections of the ASO were stellar.  The violas played with a rich tone, and the low brasses were precise and warm.   Spano never seems to let the brass drive a piece, and he showed that skill here also.    
The ASO has a grueling schedule- it performs nearly weekly, where other major orchestras perform maybe only two times a month.  I admire the ASO’s hard work, as well as the vision of the orchestra’s management in adding weekly to the rich cultural life of Atlanta.
Finally, I have noted Mr. Lazic’s brilliance.  I do wish, however, that he would have his biography edited by someone whose primary language is English.  It currently reads like a bad Google translation!

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