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BSO and Lise de la Salle

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Liszt, L. de la Salle

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Chopin, L. de la Salle
One could get used to hearing one of Richard Strauss's tone poems at almost every symphony concert: after Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen from the National Symphony Orchestra this month, it was time to go up to Charm City to hear the last performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's program, culminating in Tod und Verklärung, op. 24, last night in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. If next month does not go on to feature Don Quixote, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and the others it will be a letdown. (It is my own fault for missing the BSO's performance of Also sprach Zarathustra last month.) Truth be told, however, the works performed in the last few weeks are the ones from Strauss's list of tone poems that are most often heard, and one had better not hold one's breath for Aus Italien, Macbeth, Symphonia Domestica, or An Alpine Symphony (actually, the last one is scheduled for the WPAS program from the European Union Youth Orchestra on April 15). The BSO will play no more Strauss this season, and the only Strauss planned by the NSO for its festival of Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna is music by Johann, Jr., and Josef, with a return for Richard's Rosenkavalier suite at the end of the season.

Don't get me wrong, because any Strauss is good, any chance to revel in the vast, splendid orchestration, the finely honed dramatic sense, the chance to be lifted up in exaltation as the music brushes with transcendence. Guest conductor James Gaffigan, heard just last month with the NSO, played the work to its hilt, perhaps with too much insistence on a harried pulse in many fast sections. When he allowed the music to expand, it worked its magic, making one crave more moments of such expansion. (For comparison, there is David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhall Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Hamburg Philharmonic, and Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.) Strauss was, incredibly, still in his 20s when he composed this work, in 1888 to 1889, describing in music the last visions and thoughts of an artist breathing his dying breath, a program later set out in a poem by the composer's friend Alexander Ritter. The best moments in this performance came at the beginning, when the soft scraping breaths and distant heartbeat of the stricken man were in the background, and Gaffigan's generously free beat gave room for the tender solos of flute, oboe, and violin, reminiscences of the man's childhood. Other reflective moments were also high points, like the lush amorous interlude building to artistic ecstasy with the arrival of the work's main theme, far into the piece, emblematic of the man's creative ideals. The shimmer of the tam tam, marking the moment of the protagonist's death, was the beginning of a transcendent conclusion, building inexorably to his transfiguration.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A night of Austro-German drama with Baltimore Symphony (Baltimore Sun, February 17)

Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, Grand Rapids Symphony rises to the ocassion, and DeVos Hall audience rises to its feet with three standing ovations (Grand Rapids Press, February 10)

Matthew Guerrieri, De la Salle shows perfect touch in recital debut (Boston Globe, January 30)

Keith Powers, De la Salle moves from cool to fiery in Boston recital debut (Boston Classical Review, January 29)

---, French pianist set to make her Boston recital debut (Boston Classical Review, January 24)
The musicians sounded in generally good form, but Gaffigan's tendency to push the fortes sometimes drove the strings, violins particularly, to stridency. Wagner's overture to The Flying Dutchman was probably not really needed as an introduction to the Strauss, but it did warrant Gaffigan's blustery style, eliciting excited and exciting playing from the musicians, not least pastoral solos from English horn and oboe, and crashing brass waves. By contrast, the opening work, Brahms's Tragic Overture, op. 81, felt stolid and foursquare in Gaffigan's hands, some ardent passages in the soft sections but a lot of overblown sameness. The piece is something of a mystery, with its abrupt opening and harmonically ambiguous first theme, what scholar James Webster, in an absorbing analysis, calls its tragic flaw. The conclusion representing the fall of a hero, undone by having trusted his own idealism, is actually a rather apt pairing for the Strauss piece.

This brings us to the piece for which, quite misleadingly, the concert was named (unimaginatively, "The Genius of Mozart"), Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 (D minor, K. 466). At the keyboard, after it had risen up on a hydraulic platform in a pause after the Brahms, was young French pianist Lise de la Salle, hailed at her entrance by a claque of enthusiastic students. She was the best part of this concerto, a chestnut that did not benefit from Gaffigan's hammered approach. With sparkly technique in the bravura runs and arpeggios, she also showed subtle shading of phrases in the solo part, not least in the exposed single melody of the second movement, taken here perhaps a little too fast. No cadenzas written by Mozart survive for this concerto, but like many soloists, la Salle used those written by Beethoven for his own performance of this concerto in 1795 (Mitsuko Uchida also played them, with an even starker sense of dynamic contrast, for this memorable performance with Camerata Salzburg, also the 2nd and 3rd movements). Among many possibilities, the ones I most want to hear are by Emanuel Aloys Förster, a contemporary and possibly friend of Mozart's in Vienna. These cadenzas were composed possibly in imitation of Mozart, whom Förster likely heard perform the concerto, and they are much closer in style to Mozart than Beethoven's, which are moody, unpredictable, and in a different stylistic world. Just as the second movement felt a bit rushed, the third was positively frenetic, a thrill perhaps but too breathless to appreciate any of the work's subtleties.

Now I wish nothing but good to the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but it is no secret that Marin Alsop's tenure, after a promising first year or two, has left me disappointed. While this concert had much to enjoy, it is hard not to think of the programming as a bit formulaic and even recycled -- three of the four pieces had been featured on BSO programs in 2007 or 2008. Happily for the orchestra, the financial news is rosy, according to Public Relations Manager Laura Farmer, who recently shared that the BSO's budget has been balanced for four of the last five years and that ticket sales and subscriptions are up this year. Salary concessions from the musicians have helped contain the red ink, and the audit of last season, she also noted, shows that "annual fund contributions increased 18%, setting a new all-time high benchmark of over 10,500 contributions to the BSO." The management is wise to offer rush tickets for both students ($10) and the general public ($25) at the door, meaning that the Meyerhoff was reasonably full last night. Perhaps "The Genius of Mozart" is right where Marin Alsop and the BSO need to be right now.

Marin Alsop returns to the podium next week for a program featuring Prokofiev's fifth symphony (last heard in 2009), plus the BSO premiere of James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, with Associate Concertmaster Madeline Adkins as soloist (February 23 to 26).


jfl said...

Last regional Domestica was 12 years ago (NSO) and then Slatkin was criticized for wasting good time on second-rate Strauss. :-) [I didn't quite agree, even if S.D. certainly isn't his strongest work.]

A.G.Perigee said...

Incorrect: two seasons ago Fruhbeck conducted Symphonia Domestica and gave us the best NSO playing of that season (or most seasons) along with Ingrid Fliter in Mozart 23: an outstanding concert, and much underrated by the local reviewing-teams.

Incidentally you recommended the concert yourself:

jfl said...

I can't count. 8 Years ago.

Charles T. Downey said...

March 4 to 6, 2010 -- it looks we did not run a review of that program. Well, we can't hear everything!

The Beebs Blog said...

Thanks for the fine detailed review.
My wife and I caught the BSO at Strathmore and enjoyed it. I have admired the Strauss piece for years and hearing it live was a real treat.
I read your reviews and comments regularly.
Thanks again.