Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tues. 12/6: Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Just one concert today, and not even a movie.

Tonight’s event, the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, was definitely something. (Which reminds me, if I haven’t made it perfectly clear in previous entries, even though I’ve been struggling with some of the music Charles Curtis has been performing, there’s no question that he is not just something, he’s a genuinely extraordinary artist.)

Two works on the program: the New York premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s new Percussion Concerto (25 minutes), and the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony (aka No. 3). Colin Currie was the soloist, and the Philly’s music director Christoph Eschenbach conducted.

The Higdon is an energetic, colorful work, which makes so much use of the orchestra’s percussion section that it seemed at times more like a sinfonia concertante or concerto grosso, or one of those in-between-categories works like some movements in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in which there are multiple soloists at times. 38 percussion instruments employed all together, if I counted the list in the program correctly. Currie—a brilliant performer who clearly deserves the major career he’s established at age 29—had a gaggle of instruments spread across the front of the stage, and part of the fun of the piece was watching him scurry from one area to the next while being careful not to bump into Maestro Eschenbach. Higdon’s musical language is very accessible; she has wonderful ideas, which are well developed, and she’s a very imaginative orchestrator.

The Higdon starts with exquisitely soft marimba tremolos. And, of course, that's when several sirens went by. It kind of worked, though, and at first I thought they were perhaps part of the piece. It's one of those New York ironies. Carnegie has arguably the greatest acoustics in the world, but it is still next to Seventh Avenue!

Anyone studying conducting would have done well to watch Eschenbach during the Higdon. Clear, expert, textbook-perfect baton technique. He’s one of the few big-time conductors I’ve seen who actually holds his baton so that extends out directly in front of him, bless him. This guy I could actually follow. (I’ve sometimes commented to friends in major orchestras that watching most conductors I think to myself I wouldn’t be able to follow them, and wonder how the orchestra is doing it; they tell me they just don’t look.) Later in the Beethoven he was more free in his motions; a great orchestra like the Philadelphia doesn't need a traffic cop to play Beethoven.

The Higdon performance was superb, and received with enthusiastic applause as well as many cheers. Yes, I got tears in my eyes a few times, twice provoked by the brilliant playing of all the percussionists, and then again at the cheers for the composer. There’s something about seeing someone have such a success and be so enthusiastically embraced in this most famous of concert halls (in a city where audiences can be so rude) that is deeply moving. It’s probably historic, too, but that didn’t occur to me until just now.

The Eroica, a standard war-horse if ever there was one, was a controversial new work when first premiered. The program pointed this out and suggested the audience “ . . . think about what challenged the expectations of Beethoven’s contemporaries and what strikes us today when we encounter a new piece for the first time.” Not a bad idea, if even the Beethoven’s obvious real purpose on the program was to bring in the audience that the Higdon wouldn’t.

The performance? Clean, precise ensemble playing (save for a few moments in the Scherzo), generally fine balance (seemed a bit bottom heavey much of the time), and great coordination of details—accents and phrasings were so similar in the winds that it was as if one person was playing each one. Eschenbach chose bracing tempos, and did a great job of pacing and building tension. It was a finely crafted, architectural performance which took a big-picture, steadily paced approach, rather than using subtleties of rubato to create emotional nuance.

I was impressed and full of admiration, but not, to my dissapointment, moved.

I remembered of one of my theory teachers back at Juilliard who after analyzing a Beethoven piece for us explained that while he was in awe of Beethoven’s craft, he was just never moved by the music. Unlike my former professor, I do not have a general Beethoven immunity. But I was tired, and listening and observing so much that I realized I was listening to the performance more than surrendering to the piece; perhaps if I had been in a emotional/mental place I would have been more emotionally affected. Yet as I listened, I found myself yearning to have Furtwangler on the podium, or maybe Barenboim. I wanted something more personal. And so perhaps I just wasn't on the Eschenbach wavelength. There was a rousing ovation with many cheers, so much of the audience was more into it than I. And there's no question that I left full of professional admiration for the craftsmanship and inteelignece of the performance.

It was a beautiful night, and even though I was quite tired, I couldn’t help taking advantage of the opportunity to take a long walk--who knows when the weather might turn miserable? Seventh Avenue over to Central Park South, then east to Fifth Avenue, and down Fifth to Rockefeller Center, where I called home to rub it in. The shop windows and the people watching were, of course spectacular. Even when I lived here in NY, I always got a kick out being at Rockefeller Center, especially during the holidays.

Later, walking up the steps from the Subway, there was a mother with a fully loaded (including the largest, Sam's-Club-size bottle of cooking oil I've ever seen) portable shopping cart. She and her son, who looked to be four or five, were trying to get it up the steps. He was struggling, literally, to hold up his end (mom was pulling from the top, and his job was to lift the bottom up so it would clear the stairs). First instinct was to just lift the bottom up for him, but I stopped myself--I didn’t want to deprive him of the satisfaction that would come from helping his mother and accomplishing a difficult task. There was a small landing halfway up, and when they reached it his little arms gave out and he dropped his end and had clearly given up—there’s an expression a kid gets on his face that just says, “that’s it.” So I figured it at this point it would be OK, so I made the offer, and they accepted (no wavering on his part). Mom was appreciative and polite. The kid scampered up the rest of the stairs with joy and relief and looked like he had experienced a minor miracle.

Someone who was there is going to tell someone else about it and they’ll think it is a story of how nice New Yorkers can be. I guess we’ll have to let NY take the credit, but we know it was really Hoosier hospitality temporarily transported.

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