Saturday, March 05, 2011

At the Philharmonic: Szymanowski and Mahler

I got a ticket for this concert for Mahler's Symphony No. 4, so Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow as soloist was a bonus. The orchestra for the concerto was easily the largest I've ever seen for a solo work: lots of strings, full wind and brass sections, an armada of percussion, a piano, celeste, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. It was a formidable mass of instruments for guest conductor Daniel Harding to manage against Dicterow's solo violin. The music was dense and thick, as one might expect with forces of that size. Harding kept the orchestra from overwhelming the soloist, while Dicterow played with conviction. He's not a flashy soloist, more conservative than risk-taking, but he plays as if the violin was an extension of his body. I've watched Dicterow for a number of years both as a soloist and as concertmaster, and he always looks as if the violin is as much a part of him as his arms or legs. Szymanowski's music straddled a line between late Romanticism and early modernism, with Asian melodic lines sprinkled throughout. I wasn't about to leave the concert humming any of the tunes, but I'd listen to this piece again, especially if Dicterow is playing.

Harding is only 35, but he showed no signs of hesitation or tentativeness on the podium. His crisp movements reminded me of other young conductors I've seen, like the Philharmonic's own music director, Alan Gilbert. Harding didn't waste motion or conduct with an overly flashy or fluid style. He was precise and exact. I can't imagine what it would be like to be that young and that talented, to command the respect of musicians twice his age with decades of experience. He seemed unaffected by the position and the orchestra appeared to have enjoyed working with him. I hope he returns to Avery Fisher Hall soon.

After intermission the Philharmonic returned to the stage for Mahler's Symphony No. 4. It's Mahler's smallest symphony, both in terms of length and in orchestration. He excluded the trombones and tuba from his orchestra, reduces his normal battalion of percussion, and only has four horns and a more manageable wind section than his usual oversize symphonies require. It's long been my least favorite Mahler symphony. I first heard it (or saw it) on TV in England in 1989 while on vacation visiting my grandparents. It was a terrible way to see and hear this work. I didn't get any sense of the musical flow, I thought the melodies made no sense at all, and the finale, a soprano solo song about life in Heaven, underwhelmed me. So I avoided this symphony for a long time. It's only recently that as I've explored Mahler's music in depth that I returned to the Fourth and discovered how wonderful and lovely this symphony can be.

The second movement was interesting to watch as associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples switched violins several times with a spare, deliberately out-of-tune instrument on a chair in front of her. The interplay among her, clarinetist Mark Nuccio, and principal horn Philip Myers was entertaining as well. The massive E major chord in the third movement, signifying the glorious light of Heaven, gave me chills. The end of the third movement flowed directly into the finale as soprano Lisa Milne walked from the rear of the stage to the front to sing the words that describe Heaven as a place of childlike wonder, where everyone is free from worry and enjoys unimaginable food and drink prepared by saints and angels. It reads a bit hokey but it was blissful to hear. At the end of the symphony, the last notes came from the bass section and were barely audible. As they faded out, Harding kept his baton up, barely moving it as the sound faded. There were several seconds where no sound could be heard and no one in the audience dared to so much as breathe. I've never heard a concert hall go silent like that. At last, Harding lowered his hands, and the audience applauded vigorously for what was a fantastic performance.   

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