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Conlon and 'The Mermaid'

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A. Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, J. Conlon
(EMI, 1997)
James Conlon's stint with the National Symphony Orchestra last week was one of my Top Ten concert picks for the month. There were other assignments in the way for the first two performances, but as noted on Saturday, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to hear Conlon conduct Alexander Zemlinsky's tone poem Die Seejungfrau, at the last performance on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program was inverted from the usual order of a symphony concert, with the major Zemlinsky work performed first, followed by the concerto and the short piece that would usually be a concert-opener. At the outset, Conlon took microphone in hand and gave a savant and convincing introduction to Die Seejungfrau, speculating that Zemlinsky saw himself in the mermaid and the beautiful and inaccessible Alma Schindler, with whom he was in love, as the unapproachable prince. Alma Schindler -- later Mahler, Gropius, finally Werfel -- provided the common thread of the program, too, as she was the dedicatee of Korngold's violin concerto on the second half, composed when both Korngold and Alma lived in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Die Seejungfrau is in three movements, which are not identified with elements of the story but correspond roughly as follows: the little mermaid's life in the sea and first encounter with the prince; the spell that transforms her into a human and her attempt to get the prince to marry her; and her ultimate embrace of death, because she will not accept the Mer-Witch's offer to kill the prince and be returned herself to the sea. The first movement evokes the deep rolling of the sea, with static motifs, including deep harp notes, layered on top of groaning bass instruments, leading to huge tidal swells of sound. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was mercurial and passionate in the violin solos of the little mermaid, numerous enough to make the work almost a sort of violin concerto. Conlon gave the work a decisive pacing, which added gritty excitement to the faster passages. A rollicking horn theme signifies the prince and his men, and a passage of music in the second movement, excised from the score after the work's premiere, has been put back into the score, recovered from the holograph score in the Library of Congress, heard for the first time in the United States in these performances.

As Conlon noted, the second movement has a number of waltzes in it, and the solo violin gets swept up in one of them. If you only know this story from the sanitized Disney movie version, Andersen's mermaid suffers terrible searing pain every time she walks on her magical legs. The Mer-Witch tells her that she will move more gracefully than any human but with this terrible pain, which she endures quite happily for the chance to please the prince. The stakes in the Andersen story are deadly: if a human does not marry her, thereby sharing his immortal soul with her, the soulless mermaid will dissolve into the sea foam. The mermaid's family strikes another pact with the Mer-Witch, trading their hair for an enchanted blade: if the mermaid kills the prince with it, her fish's tail will return and she can go back to the sea. Selflessly, the mermaid throws the knife into the sea, giving up her life, but she joins spirits in the air, who can earn a soul by performing acts to help the living. Zemlinsky's has its eeriest effects in the third movement, including the return of the menacing deep sea music from the opening of the piece, with radiant string strings lifting up the violin solo, with harp twinkles and muted brass, quite ethereal. It is a score that should be on every conductor's To Do list.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO concert stuffed with Romantic music by Zemlinsky, Korngold and Brahms (Washington Post, April 11)

Terry Ponick, NSO, James Conlon highlight 20th century’s missing masterpieces (Communities Digital News, April 11)

Jesse Hamlin, James Conlon leads musical revival of Nazi-banned composers (San Francisco Chronicle, April 9)
Gil Shaham has been specializing in 20th-century violin concertos, and here he was the soloist for the sugary Korngold concerto. Shaham's tone is often beautiful and his phrasing sensitive, when the sound of the orchestra does not push him too far and the writing is not too high on the E string or otherwise demanding, so the delicate parts of this concerto were lovely, often colored by the celesta, seated right in front of Conlon's podium in this performance. In recent years, though, elements of Shaham's playing have unraveled a bit, and there were some hairy flautando notes here, iffy intonation, and slightly sketchy double-stops -- not enough to make the performance disastrous by any means, but dulling some of its shine. After these two large works, the Brahms "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" were probably unnecessary, especially since it was last heard from the NSO only in 2009, but it offered another chance for the NSO musicians to shine, especially the contraforte player Lewis Lipnick, whose line was given special prominence in the theme and several variations. Conlon kept most of the piece moving along, with a minimum of oozy sentiment to the rubato, making the minore variation (no. 4) legato and smoldering.

The NSO season continues next week, with guest conductor Cornelius Meister leading performances of overly familiar Mendelssohn and Mozart, plus Prokofiev's third piano concerto, with Nikolai Lugansky as soloist (April 17 to 19).

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