|Photo by Anna Meuer|
Three orchestras held the Disney stage on successive evenings last week, diverse in program offerings and in musical language. Two of the groups were of symphony-orchestra size (100 or so); the other numbered 10. In Disney’s acoustic splendor, all three produced, when called for, prodigious varieties of wondrous sound. I didn’t hear a deathless masterpiece at any of the concerts, but I wasn’t lured into an early departure at any of them either — not even when, at the first event, I stumbled over the Sibelius Violin Concerto lurking in some dark corner of the program by Valery Gergiev and the visiting Kirov Orchestra (fresh in from the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg).
That singularly empty, aimless, drab spinoff from the Sibelius treadmill — phenomenally played this time by the Greek whizbang Leonidas Kavakos as if in a single stroke of the bow — didn’t even turn out to be the worst piece on that program (as it usually is). The place of dubious honor belonged that night to the Second Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev, the least known of his seven, music so little played that I couldn’t find a fellow critic’s comment to crib, music thoroughly terrible and therefore, I suppose, worth hearing this once. The score, “a symphony of iron and steel,” the composer once said, dates from 1924. Compared to Prokofiev’s other great dissonant works of the time — the Scythian Suite, for example, or the opera The Fiery Angel — its half-hour’s music seems to meander nowhere and everywhere, with a final movement that consists of an opening theme and about six logical endings, all of which the composer bypassed. Like everything else on Gergiev’s program, it was accorded the full 21-gun treatment.
With or without his orchestra, Gergiev has acceded to living-legend stature; while among us last week, he also planted a few more flags in press conferences down in Orange County, where he will help celebrate the new concert hall by leading operas in the old concert hall. In the Kirov Orchestra he has created an icon, a self-image in both sight and sound. Hearing the unit hurl itself upon the first measures of Borodin’s Second Symphony — with the double basses massed up in the corner of the stage, howling like wolves on the moonlit steppes — you might wonder how this onslaught on Borodin’s careful structures might relate to the intentions of the gentle pharmacist-turned-composer. Even with its native music so blatantly overplayed, you recognize that this is some kind of unique orchestra, with whip-cracking conductor to match, and that they mean business.
The second work on the next night’s program, Samuel Scheidt’s Battaglia á 5 — battle music for five string players and keyboard, published around 1621, performed by the Italian visitors who call themselves Il Giardino Armonico (the Garden of Harmonies) — seemed like a distant but accurate echo of the Russian hurly-burly of the night before. Styles have changed rapidly in the performance of Baroque string music, as I noted a few weeks ago when some gooey, romanticized version of Vivaldi’s Seasons hit the market. Not long ago, the “authentic” Baroque style consisted of the very elegant, if somewhat bloodless, foursquare playing of I Musici and the Virtuosi di Roma, who purvey their Vivaldi very straight and nicely patterned. Now come these harmonious gardeners — only half of the full group that you can hear on their new Naïve disc titled At Home With the Devil, but still plenty loud and full of the Big Baroque Bounce. By contrast with their tractor-driven horticultural approach, those earlier “authentic” ensembles suddenly sound just a bit sleepy.
The aforementioned Scheidt piece called for great outbursts of sound: trills and cascades of tone, the instruments re-tuned to create dissonances and strange sound effects. The Giardino’s leader, Giovanni Antonini, performed a Vivaldi flute concerto with a remarkable slow movement, full of chromatic twists and turns. Another flute concerto, by one Nicola Fiorenza, ended the program with a full-scale, four-handkerchief jerking of tears, music as firmly anchored in the minor modes as any Verdian death scene in the centuries to come. They don’t write ’em like that anymore, I am happy to report.
By the end of his two-week residency on the Philharmonic podium, Iván Fischer had infused the orchestra’s language with the soft, elegant melancholy of Central Europe — specifically, this second week, the robust, carb-laden harmonies of Bohemia’s romantic masters Bedrich Smetana and his younger countryman Antonin Dvorák. Mistreated as their music may be through the years at Bowl and Pops concerts, the proper shaping hand — as Fischer wields with exceptional grace and wisdom — draws from this music a message coaxing and irresistible. In music as simple as the B-major Notturno for Strings, which Dvorák originally planned as a movement in his G-major Quintet and later expanded, any modest turn of phrase, when phrased as Fischer’s strings did the other night, becomes a memory that clings.
Dvorák’s Violin Concerto was the evening’s most substantial work, nicely played by Martin Chalifour but with no more drive than it deserves. Dvorák’s legacy glows with one supremely great concerto, but this isn’t it. What was lovelier to hear from his pen this night, and far less familiar, was the set of the early Moravian Duets for soprano and mezzo (Carolyn Betty and Kelley O’Connor), with a gentle orchestration contrived by Fischer himself: bittersweet, piercing harmonies that defined the wonderful, distinctive language that Dvorák would go on to shape into the great works of his mature years. Ending the program were three of the six audible travel posters that make up Smetana’s My Country: the often-sailed Moldau and two others less known but no less enchanting. If there had been a Czech Republic travel agent outside Disney Hall that night, I would have been first in line for tickets.