Monday, March 9, 2009

Rites and Exhibitions

Sunday marks an end to our festive weekend of hosting the prospective students for next year. I remember being in that place four years ago, the difficulty to maintain conversations (not to mention unflappable enthusiasm), which is why I'm impressed at how well so many of the students I meet from this side seem to carry it off. It's also one of the few times the entire department is together for a lecture, so it affords everyone a chance to check in as well as meet all the new students. This year, Susan McClary gave a rather beautifully wide-reaching discussion of music and the human body, though I've always felt that the lecture (given it's for a recruitment weekend) ought to be given by alums or something (to be fair, McClary has a surprisingly vast connection to our department, and it was great to get so many people beyond our department in attendance). Also this year, I was very happy the theorists joined us for the student party. It's a sign of health in the school.

This weekend also brought some other visitors to campus: The New York Philharmonic, who gave two concerts. Both felt oddly similar: somewhat disappointingly played favorite opener, inconsequential orchestral work, giant powerhouse in the second half. Last night they opened with a surprisingly not-together Midsummer Night's Dream overture, while tonight was a relatively restrained Roman Carnival Overture. Sad, because the RCO actually benefits from exuberance at the expense of clean lines. I like both pieces, and I'd forgotten how sweet the end of the Mendelssohn is, but neither performance was really revelatory. Last night, they followed with Schumann 4, tonight by Tchaikovsky's Suite #3. The Schumann was fluid and energetic, but it doesn't account for the fact that the composition sucks. Both pieces have a variety of ideas, but the Schumann makes you appreciate the details of composition. It's got some nice ideas, but it's so mechanical: theme, restate theme in a surprising key, accelerate, percussion, theme, etc. There's no architecture to the symphony, and as a result it just goes through its agitated motions. The Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, is quite nice, especially the diverse variations in the last minute- by turns magically shimmering, elegaic and schmaltzy, exuberant- one was a thrilling march with bizarre interjections of the Dies Irae (like a jokey omen of Rachmaninov), another brilliant fake baroque counterpoint. Tchaikovsky, like Schumann, is not a composer I really get into, but the performance of the Tchaikovsky really brought this little confection to life. As far as the powerhouses, tonight we got Rite of Spring, last night Pictures at an Exhibition. Rite was, uh, funny. I'm not quite sure what I thought of it- it all came across rather uniformly gritty, dark, heavy. It's effective at times, but it's wearing overall, and the effect is that those churning ostinato passages get layered on like thick swaths of paint. That said, the winds and brass are amazing in this orchestra, as is the timpanist, so the fault isn't in a lack of clarity of lines but in the overall direction. But all is forgiven by the brilliance that was last night's Pictures at an Exhibition. Clear and vibrant, especially in the wind-dominated passages. Inevitably I tear up in the last movement, but the rendition offered has to be among the more visceral reactions. In particular, the orchestra had a number of dramatic pauses that helped register the full effect of the orchestral grandeur, aided by the precision timing and balance of the group. Stunning.

Oh, and two things I love. Friday's weather was perfect, and combined with residual glee from Tati's Mon Oncle, I was positively giddy all day. Second, I just love encore pieces- 2 Hungarian Dances, Lohengrin Prelude to Act III, and Bizet's L'Arlessienne suite. It's nice to see these get played. I wish the previous use of these works as legitimate concert fare was still applicable.


  • Was Maazel conducting? He did Rite of Spring a couple years ago in New York, and I thought he put a very interesting spin on it -- more French ballet, less primal instinct than you usually hear.

    I totally agree with you about bringing the light classics (do people still call them that?) back on to concert programs, too. I guess conductors don't take them seriously?

    By Blogger Jack, At March 9, 2009 at 5:18 PM  

  • It was Maazel. I guess he has many takes on the piece, and this one was not without its gratifying moments, but it wears a bit by the end. The French translucence would have been most welcome at times.

    Actually that comment was just a trap to discredit your taste.

    By Blogger Dan B., At March 18, 2009 at 7:08 PM  

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