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Concert Review: Size Does Matter

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Mariss Jansons conducts Bartók and Mahler.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Size Does Matter

Pushing the boundaries: Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night. Photo © Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Every concert season, the Carnegie Hall Corporation arranges for a wide selection of world-class orchestras to come to New York. Wednesday evening at Isaac Stern Auditorium saw the welcome return of Amsterdam's finest band, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the baton of their music director Mariss Janssons. The program offered a pair of 20th century classics.
The first work on the program was Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 with Leonidas Kavakos. The harps set up a gentle pulse. Then, the Greek soloist bit into the meaty texture of this complicated concerto, built from the seed of its opening bars. Mr. Jansons and the orchestra provided expert architectural support in the long opening, allowing Mr. Kavakos room to express Bartok's folksong rhythms, jagged intervals and extended lyric lines.
The second movement was played with the utmost tenderness, with the solo violin's lament coming eerily close to the quality of the human voice. The finale was played with energy and bravura fire, as Mr. Kavakos leaped into the fray of this complicated finale. Soloist and orchestra battled for the spotlight, working against each other until the coda with its final ascent into a blaze of brass. The tender phrases of the final bars recalled the contemplative opening, bringing the piece full circle.
Mr. Kavakos took a solo encore: the Allemanda from the Sonata No. 4 by Eugene Ysaÿe. This work is a rarity, but the clearly stated, almost baroque thematic ideas and the remarkable effect of Mr. Kavakos playing melody and harmonic support with just four strings and a bow stunned the audience into appreciative silence. Playing by himself, this artist had the power of an entire orchestra at his fingertips.
That full orchestral power was present and accounted for in the second half, which featured Gustav Mahler's mighty Symphony No. 1. Originally titled Titan, this is a massive, muscular work that demands a high level of orchestral playing but is too often reduced to a series of vulgar or sentimental gestures.
Mr. Jansons found a unique solution to the problems presented by this work. He focused on the small, leitmotivic themes that make up the fabric of the opening movement and also help to define the three that follow. Each detailed theme, the shimmering, descending woodwind and string figures, the jaunty melody for the cellos, and even the "ting" of the triangle were subject to this same process, laid forth in sparkling detail for the listener's consideration. The little moments germinated the big climaxes of the movement, exhilarating the audience.
This detail-oriented approach to music-making continued in the dance movement, where the cellos imitated the galumph of a Bruckner ländler answered in witty riposte by clarinet and oboe. The famous funeral march evolved into Mahler's bizarre take on Jewish ceremonial music, with Mr. Jansons finding the energy in this passage. The long coda for that movement was the only bit that meandered, a calm before the storm.
When the thunder broke (in the form of a cymbal crash and a roll of timpani) Mr. Jansons led his orchestra in a wild ceremonial dance that, despite its outsized musical structure, still made harmonic and melodic sense. The mighty finale rose to its first climax, before returning to mull over the musical ideas from the opening and gearing up for another Olympic assault. The final horn climax, played standing by eight of the Concertgebouw's finest did not seem like musical overkill, but a fitting climax to this orchestral bacchanal.

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