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Concert Review: An Old-Fashioned Bacchanal

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Christoph von Dohnányi at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul Pelkonen

Concert Review: An Old-Fashioned Bacchanal

The ice man: Christoph von Dohnànyi, with baton in hand.
Photo © 2011 NewYork Phiharmonic.

The music of Hans Werner Henze has never really caught on in America. Mr. Henze is one of Europe's most important living composer. His symphonies and operas are regularly played in concert halls and theaters on that continent. But his urbane, erudite music carries the whiff of modernity to it, and the fact that the composer is still alive (he's 85) doesn't help his case with skittish Philharmonic subscribers.
Perhaps that was the reason for the sparse attendance and empty rows at Friday afternoon's New York Philharmonic concert, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. Those more timid audience members missed a lush harmonic treat, a set of Excerpts from Mr. Henze's 1966 opera The Bassarids. It was paired with an audience favorite, Schubert's "Great" Symphony, which may (or may not) be his last. The Bassarids (its German title is Die Bassariden) is a dark entry in the Henze operatic catalog. These concerts mark the first U.S. performances of the Excerpts, four instrumental episodes that, like a miniature symphony, recap the important events of the opera.
Mr. Henze writes for enormous orchestral resources, forcing the management of Avery Fisher Hall to deploy the stage extension to accomodate the full force of the Philharmonic. However, this 25-minute suite proved to be tonal, tasteful, and elegantly orchestrated, with passages that recall Richard Strauss' late mythological  operas and the complex counterpoint of Bach. 
Based on The Bacchae by Euripides and with a libretto by W. H. Auden, opera tells of Pentheus, a Greek king who denies the divinity of Dionysius, the god of wine. For his trouble he is torn to pieces by the Maenads, the mad, drunken women who are sacred to that particular deity. This scene, depicted in the third section of the suite, was played with exceptional orchestral ferocity, with strong performances from the brass and the battery.
Solo bassoons and cellos took the vocal lines of singers, requiring the principals on those instruments to play with exceptional lyricism and skill. The whole was conducted with expertise by Mr. von Dohnányi. The 81-year old  conductor not only led the first 2004 performance of this suite, but the 1966 premiere of the opera itself.
The second half of the concert featured Schubert's Great Symphony, which, given the uncertainty regarding that composer's catalogue, may or may not be his last major work for orchestra. Mr. Dohnányi led a  engaging account of the score, supplanted by strong performances from the pared-down Philharmonic. 
Throughout the four movements, Mr. Dohnányi conducted with great respect for Schubert's song-like lyric line, from the boisterous theme that opens the symphony to the clarinet quotation of a key theme from Beethoven's Ninth in the finale. This was crisp orchestal playing of the highest caliber. Exhorted by the conductor (who was working without a score) the orchestra brought home Schubert's message of exuberant vitality, creating, in effect, a second ode to Joy. 

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