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Bravery Beyond the Call

Elliott Carter composed his Night Fantasies in 1980, and entrusted its power to the four pianists who had commissioned it (and later recorded it): Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens and Charles Rosen. Nearly a quarter-century later, this half-hour work maintains that strange power to mirror any performers brave enough to take on — and, if possible, to soar above — its crevasses and crags. On the Internet I found a dissertation on the work by one John F. Link of William Paterson University (www.wpunj.edu/coac/music/

link/sonus/sonuspaper.html); If I didn’t know Dr. Link was writing about music by Elliott Carter, I might take his words as parody of a scholar up to his ears in musical abstruseness. That’s Carter for you.

I do, however, find the Night Fantasies a work of remarkable depth, possibly my favorite music from this prolific composer’s legacy, and Gloria Cheng’s performance at her recent Piano Spheres concert at Zipper Hall reminded me of the music’s wonders. Carter himself writes about the music with unusual warmth (for him, that is); it recalls to his mind the “poetic moodiness” of Schumann, and the comparison is just. Time has not reduced the terrors in the work, and the Cheng performance — broadly expressive, splendidly responsive to the work’s title — was a matter of bravery beyond the call. I hope she records it; from the music’s original dedicatees, only a Rosen performance survives.

Cheng’s program called itself a “Bounty of Birthdays,” and celebrated major anniversaries for Carter (95), John Harbison (65), William Kraft (80) and the late Jacob Druckman (75), as well as for the Piano Spheres series itself (10). The range of styles was, let’s say, interesting, from the pretty colors of Kraft’s Translucences of 1979, to the neoclassic hard lines of Harbison’s 1987 First Piano Sonata, to the charm of a set of Album Leaves by the non–birthday boy Steven Stucky (54). Two short, recent Carter pieces filled out the program, trivial music from a man who has earned the right to nod now and then. Piano Spheres, one of the city’s most distinguished concert series, has not nodded as yet and probably won’t; the next event, a program by Susan Svrcek, is listed for January 14.

Across the street, a few nights later, came the latest in Disney Hall’s baptismal events, its first-ever piano recital, delivered by Evgeny Kissin. At 32 and, thus, no longer the apple-cheeked wunderkind of yore, Kissin remains brave; it is indeed an act of bravery for a young virtuoso, his career nicely anchored among spellbinding performances of Pictures at an Exhibition and the Rach 3, to devote nearly an hour of a recital program to the last of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonatas, all the repeats in place, sprightly when required. I wish, therefore, that I could report on the event with unmodified rapture.

Overall it was a stupendous concert, made uncommonly generous by a full half-hour of encores no less substantial than the scheduled program (Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne and one of his Paganini Etudes and on and on). There were, indeed, fine moments in the sonata in unexpected places — that imponderable, jolting turn in the slow movement, for one, where Schubert drops us precipitously, trembling and with hearts afire, from C-sharp minor to C major. The phrasing of the broad, eloquent opening theme — twitchy, uneven and at odds with lyric flow — had led me to expect far worse. Come to think of it, I have yet to hear from a pianist of Russian background — Horowitz, Richter and now Kissin — a Schubert sonata played with comprehension of that astonishing interplay of intimacy and grandeur that sets this music apart on its own pedestal.

 

As of this writing I have been to four scheduled events at Disney, seated in a different part of the hall each time: high against a side wall in the terrace section, in the front row of the balcony, in an orchestra aisle seat about halfway back and, for the Mahler Second the other night, in an “Orchestra East” seat above the orchestra and over the harps, where Esa-Pekka Salonen and I could, if we had so chosen, play eye games with each other. So far as my aged ears could detect, the differences in sound from one perch to another were negligible; the hall sounds as good as the press department wants me to believe. I would not happily return to that perch in the balcony, however; if I had had to push my way into a center seat, instead of being on the aisle, the narrowness of the space and its height would have brought on an attack of vertigo. Should the Philharmonic really want me up there, let them sponsor a paper-airplane competition, not a concert.

The problems with audience noise remain; the solution will be for the hall itself to instill a sense of awe, delight and pride. It can happen; already the amenities have earned widespread comment. Praise resounds for accessible johns on every floor (except, once again, that awful balcony), escalators to get you there, a handsome bookstore (which still needs to be stocked with merchandise pertinent to the concert at hand), a really splendid small cafeteria (which I mention only hesitantly, for fear of overcrowding) and, above all, the garden with its plantings lit by the smile of Lillian Disney.

The Mahler Second was, to nobody’s surprise, sufficiently off-the-wall to make the music itself seem almost lovable this time around. I find the affection lavished upon this score somewhat ludicrous — whether from Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose performance last week was a marvel of orchestral detail meticulously defined and blended, or from that obsessed New York capitalist Gilbert Kaplan, who buys himself the chance to wave a stick at this music when and wherever he chooses, but conducts nothing else in God’s entire realm. The vast acoustic excellences of Disney Hall make it possible to enhance the dimensionality of the music — the offstage brass and percussion that stop all forward momentum early in the finale, and the uprushing cellos and basses early on. Nobody pays nearly enough attention to the enchanting Schubertian-ness of the slow movement, where Salonen encouraged his elegant violins to turn themselves into inelegant fiddles and dowse the music in giggles and chortles. That, to these ears, is the culmination of the Mahler Second, and the other night it was supergorgeous. The rest was high-class blah.


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