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Concert Review: Music of (Easy) Conscience

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The New York Philharmonic opens a three-week festival to end its season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Music of (Easy) Conscience

Conductor Jaap van Zweden leading the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.

The New York Philharmonic is in the endgame of its spring 2019 season, the orchestra's first with Jaap van Zweden as its music director. That endgame is a three week festival dedicated to "music of conscience". This loose aggregation covers symphonies and a new opera by David Lang in the coming weeks, with the connection between works being the creation of music at times of great social and political storm and stress. On Tuesday night, Mr. van Zweden led the last concert of the first program of the festival pairing pieces by Beethoven and Shostakovich. Though these two men lived in very different times and political climates, each work had the benefit of being readily familiar to even the most conservative members of the audience.
The first half of the program was dedicated to the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in C minor. This is a symphony in name only. In fact it is a reorchestration (by Rudolf Barshai) of the composer's String Quartet No. 8. This is one of the few pieces Shostakovich wrote outside the Soviet Union, dashing its five movements off in just three days in 1960. It is a stormy five-movement work that ranks among the most popular Shostakovich chamber works. Barchai expanded the spidery string lines into a richer orchestral fabric but ran into the problem that plagues all who would rewrite string quartets for the five parts of a string orchestra: what role to place the double basses in. They do little but supply deeper rhythmic chug alongside the cello parts.
The opening bars are instantly familiar to anyone who's ever watched a 20th century film about the horrors of  war. The opening theme is the familiar "signature" motif used by Shostakovich in much of his middle period. This theme, D-E flat-C-B natural is notated (in the German system) as "D-S-C-H", forming the composer's initials in that language. This bit of code is omnipresent in the five movements, its pensive presence putting the composer himself as the protagonist of his own work. There are also frequent callbacks and cross-references to great past triumphs, such as themes from the First and Fifth symphonies, and two quotes from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the controversial opera that so offended the delicate sensibilities of Josef Stalin.
Under Mr. van Zweden, this musical odyssey veered into rocky shoals and dangerous waters. The Allegretto charges forward with staccato string themes suggesting a fugitive on the run from hunting secret police, the D-S-C-H coming out like a panicked scream. The halting, skittering central movement uses the large palette to great effect, with soft-loud dynamic creating the illusion that the protagonist has found some form of shelter. It doesn't last. Droning strings are attacked by harsh interjections from cellos abd basses. The overall effect of the five movements was powerful and cumulative, its emotional impact undiminished despite the best bronchial efforts of Tuesday night's audience.
Beethoven's Third, the 'Eroica' Symphony is a bread-and-butter work, and yet these concerts mark the first time that Mr. van Zweden conducted this symphony in New York. Its political history is well-known. Beethoven originally created this massive symphony, the first in its genre to clock in at over 45 minutes in length, as a tribute to the rising Corsican politician Napoleon Bonaparte. However, when Bonaparte chose to crown himself as Emperor, the composer, in his disgust, struck out the title and renamed it the "Eroica ("heroic") Symphony, to commemorate the memory of a great man."
Under Mr. van Zweden, the orchestra seemed tentative and even a little sluggish in the first movement. Some crucial moments, like the cello-bass chords that sound as if the orchestra is playing "backward" were blurry and passed by with little effect. However, the rushing stream of melodic invention gained momentum and power as the music whirled forward and plunged into the recapitulation. The funeral march was taken at an unbearably slow dirge, and one wished for a little more surge and spring in the step of the pallbearers.
Matters improved with the Scherzo. This was lilting, playful and finally aggressive thanks to the hard punch of the timpani and brass. The big choir of horns in the trio is always a nail-biter (especially given the changes in the Philharmonic brass section.) The results here were very solid indeed. The finale rushed forward so its opening salvo would not be ruined by more inter-movement audience applause. It was everything it should’ve been. Beethoven’s grand design merged from the plucked ground bass like a titan bursting out of the Earth, then striding majestically off into a glorious musical sunset.
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