Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center..
The only disappointing thing about the evening of Thursday, April 10, 2014 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was that it was not full. When the National Symphony Orchestra chooses such interesting repertory as it did for this concert under conductor James Conlon, the musical idealist imagines the place full to the rafters.
True, I may not have come just to hear Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which has warhorse status. But I would have gone some considerable distance more than I did to hear Conlon conduct Alexander Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), a 40-minute Fantasy for Orchestra, composed in the early 20th century. For one thing, it is sumptuous, gorgeous music with hints of Mahler and early Impressionism, and more than a hint of Wagner. For another, Conlon is a specialist in Zemlinsky’s works. One of my favorite Zemlinsky recordings is his set of the complete choral works and orchestral songs. I also had high expectations because I had heard Conlon with the NSO in the first act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre back in the early winter of 2006. It was great performance. (Ionarts review here)
Adding to the interest was the fact that this performance, for the first time in the United States, restored about two minutes of music in the sea witch portion of Part II. It has been a long journey to get The Mermaid back in one piece. Zemlinsky abandoned the composition after its 1905 premiere because, it seems, it was largely overshadowed by the other premiere of the evening – Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. There is no doubting the greatness of Schoenberg’s work, but it hardly excuses the dismissal of Zemlinsky’s tone poem for mega-orchestra, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. In any case, the three parts of The Mermaid were not back together until 1984 – and the extra two minutes in Part II until 2013.
One thing I like about this piece is that it is one of the last such over-the-top wallows in orchestral sound that does not carry within itself the seeds of decay. It does not consciously, or even unconsciously, presage the coming collapse of Europe. Nor does it point to the exhaustion of tonality, which Zemlinksy never abandoned, as did Schoenberg. It is a warm bath in the lushness of the late First Viennese School (Schoenberg was soon to launch the Second Viennese School). The program booklet states that Zemlinsky composed The Mermaid in response to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben. While I would not list either of these compositions as truly great works, I have no trouble expressing my preference for the Zemlinsky. One of my musically literate friends in the audience, who had not heard it before, proclaimed The Mermaid a “revelation.” The NSO captured the luxuriance, lyricism, and drama of this piece.
Before the Brahms, we got another special treat, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, played by Gil Shaham. One would not normally accuse Korngold of orchestrating lightly but, after the Zemlinsky, the piece sounded almost Mozartian. Of course, the Concerto is more Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a bit of Mahler, than it is Mozart, but it is very lovely and wonderful fun. Despite its date of composition (1937-39, revised 1945), this work belongs to the late Romantic Viennese School, with nary a reference to what Schoenberg had done to derail it. I have never enjoyed it so much as I did in Shaham’s performance. [Ed. He has also made the ionarts recording of choice of the concerto.]
He clearly likes the piece and was happy playing it. He showed that what unlocks this Concerto is not virtuoso brilliance, which he possesses in abundance, but warmth and commitment. I recall Jascha Heifetz being asked once why he did not smile while he was playing. He responded, “What, for? No one would see it beyond the fifth row.” That did not prevent Shaham from bathing everyone around him in a generous, genuine smile. He, Conlon, and the NSO had a romp together in this piece.
By the time of the Brahms Variations, I was succumbing to a massive allergy attack, and was not as alert a listener as I would like to have been, but all that I heard, I liked. Nonetheless, I had held out for what I had come for, and was delighted with it. Aside from wishing the hall had been full, I hope that Conlon drops his stand-up routines in which he jokes with the audience about the music he is about to play. His performance doesn’t need it.
The program repeats on Saturday evening, April 12, at 8 PM.
Read Charles review of the concert here.