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S & H International Concert Review


Stravinsky, Ravel, Ives
, Leon Fleisher, Piano, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, May 29, 2004 (BH)

Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911 version, complete ballet score)
Ravel: Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30)
Ives: Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England (c. 1911-14. rev. 1929)

As one of the main attractions during the New York Philharmonic’s festival of the music of Charles Ives, conductor Lorin Maazel gave a brilliantly precise reading of Three Places in New England. Maazel even had the admirable nerve to place this last on the program, and I noted with pleasure that almost everyone in the packed hall had stayed to hear it, contrary to conventional wisdom about audiences fleeing from 20th-century works. What a shame that this score seems so absent from the concert hall. (Kudos to Maazel’s predecessor Kurt Masur, who according to the program notes gave the full orchestral version its first Philharmonic performance in 1994, and then reprised it again in 1998.)

Ives’ own comment following the premiere in 1931 was, "Just like a town meeting – every man for himself," and that pretty much describes the rousing chaos of the piece. The first movement has a long title, The "St. Gaudens" in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), and Ives wrote a companion poem whose final line bears repeating: "In the silence of a strange and sounding afterglow, moving – marching – faces of souls!" In Maazel’s finely detailed performance one could sense the afterglow, the marching and the souls, all vying for attention in the composer’s inimitable universe.

The gleefully anarchic second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, with its fleeting glimpses of hymn tunes racing by, seems as invigoratingly "American" as it gets. At the climax, the orchestra reaches a breathlessly frenzied passage with seemingly each instrument in motion contrary to the others, all stabbing at a pounding volume level. The startling ending suddenly shears off, as if someone had abruptly torn the last page in half right in the middle of the performance. The final movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, has effects evocative of mist, meadows and running water and can seem quite magical, as it did here. The audience responded by bringing out Maazel four times.

For many in the audience, the high point of the evening was Leon Fleisher in the Ravel, delivered with elegance and style to spare. Fleisher has made news in the last few years for regaining some use of his right hand – wonderful news, of course, but he doesn’t need it to own this particular piece. If he didn’t do a note-perfect performance, he more than made up with poetry overflowing. As he plunged into the final haunting cadenza, I was close enough to the orchestra to watch as one of the viola players, a young woman, closed her eyes in pleasure and gently nodded, as Fleisher’s strong tone floated out through the house. Maazel provided sturdy, glittering accompaniment, nicely paced, with an especially vivid crash at the end of the long introduction before the piano makes its initial entrance. Special praise, also, to the percussion players and to a really lustrous-sounding brass section.

The Stravinsky somehow did not have the final edge that it needs to be fully aloft, even though the orchestra sounded wonderful, as they seem to these days with this conductor. Although beautifully played, to be sure, with some (again) eager brass and outstandingly vivid and alert work by pianist Eric Huebner, to these ears the score seemed less "ballet-like," with a heaviness that would not be my first choice of the many ways to do this work.

As a small appendix to this article, during this concert I tried out a new device that the Philharmonic calls a "Concert Companion," actually a pocket PC (an IPAQ by Hewlett-Packard, for those interested) that uses wireless technology to deliver program notes, real-time commentary on the piece being performed, and a live video feed showing the conductor’s face and hands, courtesy of a camera on the back wall behind the orchestra. Originally developed by the Kansas City Symphony, the device seems most valuable for the instant commentary, delivered to the near second, in the same manner that surtitles appear for say, an opera. I have heard Petrushka dozens of times, but still found the comments (by writer and critic Gregory Sandow) well-considered, even mildly amusing, such as "There go those flutes again!"

The live video feed needs some rethinking. The image was too bright, so few of Maazel’s facial expressions could be made out, although the small size of the screen would have made this difficult at best in any case. And there was a brief delay now and then – a slight jerkiness – in the image that made it impossible to reconcile the maestro’s hand movements on screen with the music that was being heard.

The device is completely noiseless, and the stylus provided is not really necessary; a fingertip works nicely. A friend was even able to re-boot his when it crashed during the performance. Personally, most of the time I prefer to get background and explanatory notes either before or after the music itself, since I don’t like reading and listening simultaneously. Similar to recorded tours of art museum exhibitions, for which outside comments are sometimes welcome, occasionally one might be just as happy in the companionship of the art itself, without any distractions. Reading about music seems mostly a left-brain activity, while listening to it is decidedly a right-brain pursuit. Nevertheless, this is an experiment certainly worth pursuing, and this device would be quite valuable to those tackling a new, complex, or unfamiliar work, and certainly to anyone new to classical music.

Bruce Hodges


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