"Autumn in New York/ It spells the thrill of first-nighting" (Vernon Duke)
As Tony Tommasini wrote last week in the Times, it's always a privilege to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in concert. And we, in New York, are more privileged than most, given that the VPO returns here each and every season for a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, usually in the dead of winter when the city is dark and cold. But, to have the VPO open the fall season with a series featuring not one but two conductors - not to mention two of the most famous soloists in classical music - is enough to make you toss your beach blanket into a bonfire.
Last Thursday, Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt led a complete performance of Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast: a vast cycle of six symphonic poems inspired by various aspects of Czech culture and history: from the Vysherad castle in Prague, to scenes from rural Bohemia. (Originally, the VPO was to perform Bruckner's mighty 8th symphony; no word as to why they made the switch.)
Harnoncourt, now 80, is one of the world's most esteemed and versatile conductors. In addition to being an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic - a rare honor accorded to only a handful of conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan - he is even better known as a pioneer of the early music movement, having formed the Concentus Music Wien in 1953: the world's first period instrument ensemble, with which he still regularly performs.
As he took the podium - figuratively speaking since there was, in fact, no podium - Harnoncourt stared long and hard out into the audience, as if he were trying to make us out to the same degree we were him. That intensity was sustained throughout the two-hour performance, which ranged from majestic to sublime, stormy to tranquil. Early on, the VPO seemed to be a bit outside their comfort zone with this music, but they soon came roaring back with astonishing texture and precision anchored by the strings, which were both deep and driving and crisp and clear. In Harnoncourt's hands, the music seemed to live somewhere between Wagner's Rhine journey and a Strauss waltz, both of which this orchestra plays better than any other.
Sunday's matinee concert featured a conductor of a far different pedigree: Gustavo Dudamel, the 29 year old music director of the LA Philharmonic and one of the classical world's brightest - and flashiest - stars. At first glance, it felt like some kind of ill-advised stunt: revered orchestra pairs up with hot young conductor. (Dudamel will also be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic later this season.)
But, from the moment Duda let his baton drop on the opening bars of Brahms' Tragic Overture, it was clear that this was, in fact, a serious venture. As if to confound our expectations, Dudamel took the Brahms slow. Really slow. His take was both restrained and straightforward, squeezing out every last drop of essence out of the piece, which stretched out to nearly 20 minutes (from it's usual 15.) Whether his glacial pace was motivated by reverence or uncertainty I couldn't say, but he seemed to have the players' full buy-in - never an easy task with this famously-independent group of musicians.
Next came Schumann's Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, who I last saw leading the Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood this summer. Aside from all of his extra-classical ventures, Ma has been, without question, the world's greatest cellist for over 20 years, attributable less to his virtuosity than the extreme generosity of his spirit.
Ma is an old hand at this concerto: an intimate, tortured piece Schumann dashed off in two weeks then continued to revise over the next several years, right up until his final descent into madness. Duda and the VPO kept their distance, allowing Ma's highly emotional playing to shine through. Throughout, Ma seemed to be lost in an ecstatic trance, smiling broadly and nearly leaping out of his chair during major crescendos. Yet, his approach was that of a chamber musician, continually catching the eye of concertmaster Rainer Kuchl and principal cellist Franz Bartolomey, with whom he shared an extended duet. It was the performance of a lifetime.
After bouncing around the stage during curtain calls like an exuberant teenager, Ma played the prelude to Bach's first Cello Suite as an encore, holding the hall in his thrall for two more entrancing minutes. (In 1991, Ma performed all six of the Bach suites at Carnegie, in a marathon 4 1/2 hour concert that remains legendary.) And then, after a few more smiles and handshakes with the Vienna musicians, he was gone.
After intermission, the VPO and Dudamel returned with Dvorak's 9th Symphony: the so-called "New World" symphony. The symbolism couldn't have been starker: new world conductor leading the old world's greatest orchestra, in the hall where the symphony was first performed back in 1893. Duda, who conducted the 40 minute score from memory, unleashed all of the VPO's fury on the opening Allegro. The Largo was tender and glistening, while the Scherzo had Duda up and jumping around the podium. By the time they reached the Finale, Duda's curly mop of hair was flying all over the place, and the VPO erupted with a full roar which was soon returned by the full house, everyone rising to their feet.
Customarily, the VPO performs a waltz or two as an encore whenever they visit Carnegie, usually something heard during their annual New Year's concert. But, for this occasion, Duda chose Bernstein's Waltz from the Divertimento for Orchestra: a nod both to Lenny's hometown and to his status as one of the VPO's favorite collaborators. And then, less than a minute after they finished, the musicians had cleared the stage, with motorcoaches waiting on 7th Ave. to take them to their custom charter at JFK. It was almost as if the whole thing had never happened...