Straight to the Kisser

The Sixth Symphony of Antonin Dvorák disarms all protest. It snuggles into your awareness with a warm-hearted, syncopated throb, eases onto your lap and delivers an irresistible wet kiss. No other music in my acquaintance, large-scale or small, comes at you quite this way, although the previous symphony in the Dvorák canon, No. 5 in F, tries the same trick and makes it work almost as well. When I was toying with the notion of a career in writing about music, I came across words about the Dvorák Sixth — it was listed as No. 1 back then, before the definitive catalog came out — by Sir Donald Tovey, and they firmed my resolve. Sir Donald wrote about the “sublimity” of this work, “that sublimity which is utterly independent of the size or range of the artist’s subject, which trails clouds of glory not only with the outlook of the child but with the solemnity of the kitten running after its tail.”

That is, indeed, the quality in Dvorák that some people often miss in writing off his best works as a kind of Brahms Lite. The child, the kitten — and the lover of beauty at any age — were part of the sublimity that filled Disney Hall last week as the Philharmonic and its inspired guest conductor Jiri Belohlavek took on the Dvorák Sixth and gave it exactly the right accent for delivering that aforementioned kiss and all the marvels that ensued. That same conductor, by the way, turns up on a two-disc Warner Classics set of both the Fifth and the Sixth, but the BBC Symphony doesn’t quite match the endearing accents he drew from our own Philharmonic. Here those accents — the little extra light at the top of the phrase, the ever-so-slight whoosh around the glorious tune of the slow movement (eat yer heart out, Doktor Brahms!) — were so beautifully managed that you’d swear the whole orchestra had spent the week on Pilsener transfusions. Oh my, it was beautiful!

Perhaps it was this that made the ensuing music, the G-minor Concerto of Max Bruch, land with such a thud, although a team of Heifetz, Paganini and Evelyn’s Magic Violin couldn’t have breathed the spark of life into this glorified café number. I just know that Sarah Chang, for all her pirouettes and expressive face making, didn’t. Can it be that I — along with the rest of the world — am beginning to tire of aging prodigies clinging to former glory through means other than musical? The ovation on Saturday night did not carry Sarah Chang through to an encore, nor had it for Joshua Bell a few weeks ago: proof, I’d like to think, that our audiences are maturing faster than some of our performers.

Janácek and Balance

Léos Janácek’s Taras Bulba in its full scoring, organ and all, returned the evening to its proper store of brilliant, slashing orchestral colors. Marvelous, quirky, full of dark shadows — and not much to do in tone or spirit with the Yul Brynner shoot-’em-up — this, too, is music full of subtle accents, nicely comprehended by the excellent Belohlavek.

By delicious coincidence, there had been other Janácek, in quite different accents, earlier last week: piano works including the well-known and exquisite suite In the Mist and a gathering of short, utterly charming, virtually unknown character pieces, all chosen by Thomas Adès to round off his Philharmonic “residency” with a guest shot at the neighboring “Piano Spheres” series. For the intimate space of Zipper Hall, this phenomenal Brit came up with a delightful program alternatively hard-nosed and whimsical, evidence of his ability to astound an audience with the depth and breadth of his musical purview. The crowd, by the way, was the largest I’ve ever seen at a “Piano Spheres” event, further proof that this phenomenal invader from the Homeland has staked out a considerable claim here in the Colonies. Included were a couple of merely cute, lightweight pieces by Stravinsky and the Italian pedagogue Niccolo Castiglione and a brace of canons composed by Conlon Nancarrow for mechanical piano and therefore, you would think, unplayable by human hands. (Think again.) Two early piano works by Adès himself, neither more than 10 minutes’ duration but both bristling with a young composer’s eagerness to burst out into the world, provided the evening’s most substantial musical message; the temptation was to hear them, as I did, as echoes of Asyla, his great orchestral work from about the same time, which Adès had led with the Philharmonic only three nights before. Asyla invaded our complacency first at Ojai in 2000, then in 2003 as part of the Disney Hall inaugural weeks. Simon Rattle conducted both times; this was my first hearing of Asyla under another baton.

The work endures. Overpowering as the temptation may have been, at those first hearings, to overvalue the murderous hullabaloo of the one movement (of four) quite accurately labeled “Ecstasio,” further scrutiny brings the work into focus: an unruly, daring but consistent masterpiece of many moods marvelously comprehended. Its moods, and its mood changes, are deliberate and profound; they are no less valid than the wet kiss of Dvorák. It’s interesting, and not, I’m sure, accidental, that at the Philharmonic, Asyla shared the program with Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, almost exactly a century older. There, too, an ecstatic third movement leads to a tragic ending — which, at that time, engulfed the composer as well as his music. (The podium was also shared that night: Adès to conduct his own work, Philharmonic assistant conductor Joana Carneiro to lead a tidy if noncommittal reading of the “Pathétique.”)

Both works end in darkness, Asyla with mysterious, threatening percussion off in undefined distances. “You haven’t heard the end of me,” the 26-year-old composer/prodigy seemed to be saying seven years ago. The good news is that time has proved him right.

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