Concerto Conversations

Concert Mastery

The annual schizophrenic week of the music season is upon us: the time of overlap that ordains the alternation of Hollywood Bowl picnic supper one night and grand opera, with mandatory matching socks, at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the next. The transition this time has been neatly handled; nothing paves the path from the wordless passions of the concert stage to the explicit dynamics of the dying heroine better than a good, lusty concerto. Last week’s Bowl programming was notably generous in that regard. You mightn’t have gotten that idea from the local press, but it was there nonetheless.

Something about the Brahms Violin Concerto and the Bowl come together to overcome my reservations about the place and my distaste for the work itself. It has always been that way. There is a memory of a magical evening — Carlo Maria Giulini conducting, Itzhak Perlman as soloist, sometime around 1983 — that I invoke on my inner Victrola at times of stress; it’s always there for me. Last week’s performance may not have reached that luxurious eloquence, but it was splendid on its own level. Martin Chalifour, the Philharmonic’s all-knowing concertmaster, was the soloist, using his exceptional sense of ensemble to play in and around his colleagues. Xian Zhang, the evening’s guest conductor, just about half Chalifour’s height, concocted an admirable rapport between soloist and orchestra, something as agreeable to hear as to watch on the video screens (intelligently used this once). Much has been made of Ms. Zhang’s quick success as the New York Philharmonic’s associate conductor; it was somewhat demeaning to bring her all the way here to divide labors on a concerto and deliver nothing more on her own than a flashy Prokofiev ballet. More, please.

Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was the work at hand at the Bowl two nights later, music so unproblematically likable that its genuine points of subtlety often pass by unnoticed. There are many: abrupt changes of key brought on rudely and dramatically within this otherwise polite and undramatic context; a sudden prospect of paradise as the solo clarinet takes hold in the slow movement; a delicious thumbing of the nose as the closing measures knock you off your seat. Maybe your grandmother had the Beethoven First in her piano lessons at the academy, but there’s more to the work than that, and Ingrid Fliter, that marvelous prizewinner who burst upon us last spring as a substitute for Martha Argerich (which is a career in itself), proved at the Bowl that her span of insights, her command of the work’s expressive range, was more than a mere one-shot. Our Philharmonic’s own diminutive assistant-about-to-become-associate conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate, was the capable collaborator.

On his own, Mickelthwate led the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony in a manner tense and original. Popular as the work has become — “to its detriment and maybe ours” do I hear someone whisper? — the votes are not yet counted on the “definitive” (hateful word) Shostakovich Fifth, from the broad, dark panoramas outlined in Kurt Sanderling’s hourlong Philharmonic performance, which I cherish on tapes, from the ’80s, to Zubin Mehta’s zippy vulgarity, which he still inflicts. From Mickelthwate the other night, I heard a clear, reasoned approach to the Fifth, nicely restrained so that the structural details — the simplicity in the way large, forceful themes metamorphose to jagged versions of themselves — stood out under the bright orchestration. Intrusions, including, at a crucial point in the slow movement, a garrulous pack of cruising coyotes, reminded us that summer still had some time remaining, and it was overall a fine night to be at the Bowl.

Words’ Worth

I had my own reasons for feeling this way; others had others. In last Thursday’s Times, I learned from the words of one Adam Baer that Martin Chalifour “remained keenly aware of how to perform as a team player” and shared “rhythmic landings [!] with Zhang while drawing rich-sounding [nonexistent] arpeggios from his instrument.” The slow movement, our man in Box 830 seems to have noticed, was “sung lyrically, with a touch of speed [huh?],” which sounds to me like some kind of disagreement in tempo. No, it sounds like somebody using words for no real reason.

Look around, as many do nowadays, at the news of classical music’s sad decline in popularity, at the box office and at the now-disappearing record store; sooner or later, some of the blame descends upon the pall of ignorance that envelops the consuming public. Who’s around these days to write to the 12,000 people who heard Chalifour’s moving and beautiful version of the Brahms Concerto and the Prokofiev ballet music on a balmy night — or to the nearly 7,000 who heard this marvelous young Argentine pianist (“ending long phrases not with a bang but with a Mozartean rounding-off”) and our own superb young conductor doing great Beethoven and Shostakovich — and come back in the city’s one and only culturally responsive newspaper to help them put a value on what they heard and why? The jilted listeners find, instead, the gibberish of an Adam Baer or a Chris Pasles, or a couple of other preening dilettantes of comparable brainpower who throw a lot of artsy words around at the cultural life of this growing community, and nobody cares about stuffing a rag into their word processors.

I am a member of an endangered species. Encountering dangerous members of the species makes me frightened or sick, especially at 82. I happen to think that I am better than a lot of them, on the strength of having studied with superior teachers and stayed awake in their classrooms. (The best of them, Joseph Kerman, wrote a book whose title I stole for this article. I also dedicated my own recent book to him.) The best of the active critics are Mark Swed, Alex Ross and, I guess, myself. All three of us have four-letter names. But so does Adam Baer, so this proves nothing.?

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