What better way to begin Lorin Maazel’s tenure as music director than with a live broadcast of his first subscription series concert of the 2002-2003 season. I eagerly awaited this performance, sharing it with thousands of listeners due to the generosity of WQXR. But the icing would not be tasted!
The program began with the world première of John Adams’ telling soundscape in homage to the survivors of last year’s World Trade Center tragedy. In the pre-concert interview, Adams was reluctant to categorize this multi-media work written for large orchestra, chorus, youth chorus (the excellence in diction, intonation and projection achieved by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus was a highlight), as well as pre-recorded “street sounds” and the grim roll call. “I call it a memory space, feeling the love and loss,” he said. “It’s for the survivors.”
The work’s intentional references to Charles Ives’ brilliant The Unanswered Question (1908) was most apt. For, as Ives wrote nearly a decade ago, “The trumpet intones ‘The Perennial Question of Existence’” with muted off-stage strings representing “The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See and Hear Nothing.”
Overall, Adams’ music seemed more of a scrapbook than an essay, filled with bits and pieces of things remembered and loved ones lost.
Listening to its opening bars was an eerie experience as the recorded sirens from New York were joined by live ones dashing through my neighbourhood on their way to someone’s aid. I wondered what Ives (who made his fortune selling life insurance) would think of the Adams’ skillful patching of this emotional quilt.
I have never forgotten my introduction to one of the World’s masters of orchestral colour. It was one of the first performances of the stunning Harmonielehre in a riveting rendition by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Necessarily, On the Transmigration of Souls is far quieter and introspective, yet its climax came across as more orchestrated than emotional.
Maazel kept the work moving steadily forward. The recording engineers did a marvellous job balancing its disparate components. The New York Choral Artists acquitted themselves beautifully, easily negotiating the Ives-like polytonal sections that made me recall some of his Psalm settings, but wishing for the relief of a plagal “Oh Jacob.”
Beethoven’s D Minor Symphony was the perfect foil to the thoughts and feelings in the air prior to intermission. Here was Maazel’s chance to set his artistic bar and reaffirm the ability of the human spirit to endure anything life throws at it.
Strangely, given Maazel’s long association with the orchestra as a guest conductor, the first movement came across unsettled, a near-academic exercise that showed off the band, but failed to plumb the depths of mystery, despair and anger that fill its pages. Greater attention to the dynamics—especially pianissimo—and agreement by all as to the length of stacatti could only help.
The exuberant “Scherzo” was the pick of the litter. Here the tempi were brisk and driving, the tympani bang-on and the strings—notably what is probably the finest cello section in North America—lean and articulate. But where were all of the repeats? For, as NYP executive director Zarin Mehta mentioned in his pre-concert announcements, there were many first-time attendees, why not give them the complete meal?
Not until the lyrical 12/8 section was reached did the hauntingly wonderful “Adagio” come off the page. Its opening suffered from too many bar lines, the distracting “wow” of the clarinet’s upper reaches and a dynamic range that was far too limited. Yet once securely in B-flat major, Beethoven’s extraordinary combination of long lines, embellishment (take a huge bow, first violins) and stark clarion calls were near-perfect. If only Maazel would interpret fortissimo as louder, rather than the unwritten, momentum-losing ritardandi.
But then, hearing the clunk of the soloists’ feet as they took their places and the magical “whoosh” of the chorus as it stood, the anticipation for the most incredible finale ever penned was palpable.
Imagine my surprise when, after an electronic pop from my speakers, we suddenly rejoined the Adams work—already in progress. Aha, I thought, we’re being given just a few more seconds of the tribute so as to poignantly set the stage for the “Ode to Joy.” A tad theatrical, but …
An announcer’s voice informed us that the “feed had been lost from New York” and WNED would try to “get it back.” After a few more frustrating minutes, an un-credited recorded version of the last movement began. It was like rump roast instead of prime rib. I switched off, my appetite unsatisfied.
NOTE: The good folks at WNED-FM, Buffalo have advised me that the concert will be re-broadcast—complete—on another date. I'll be looking for it! JWR