JWR Articles: Live Event - Birds, Bees and Beethoven (Featured performer: Zoltán Kalman) - December 1, 2003

Birds, Bees and Beethoven

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Soloist delights

Sunday’s capacity house for this season’s second Masters Series concert was treated to an afternoon with Zoltán Kalman—clarinetist extraordinaire.

His main offering was Weber’s first concerto, which every serious clarinet student knows, but few see for more than its technical wizardry.

Perhaps one more rehearsal would have yielded a truly seamless collaboration. Music director Daniel Swift’s initial tempo was several notches quicker than Kalman’s first statement—seemed like the slow movement was upon us far ahead of schedule. However, everything moved forward with greater surety once the melodic ice had been broken.

As he demonstrated all afternoon, Kalman’s technique is at a level where the notes, articulations and tone quality are givens, providing him with the tools to shape and phrase the music at will. The remainder of the “Allegro” pushed and pulled with romantic zest and the NSO’s winds, particularly principal bassoon Darlene Jussila interacted with verve. Any ensemble problems came more from the acoustics than miscues. With the soloist at the lip of the stage and the winds hovering in front of the adjustable sound baffle, their similarly produced sounds bounced off the ceiling at slightly different times, producing errant synchronization—especially noticeable in the rapid-fire staccato sections. This was one case where the featured perfromer might have been better served by standing with his colleagues.

The “Adagio” was beautifully served up with a deliciously-oily legato tone and deep sense of personal involvement with Weber’s soaring and thoughtful lines. The famous dialogue with the horn trio had more grace notes than intended, but its effect was not lost.

During the saucy “Rondo,” Kalman flew through the notes with ease, cooled things down at the change of mode and delivered the final few measures like a Rossini overture. Steam could be seen rising from the silver keys of his trusty Buffet as the appreciative crowd thundered its approval.

With just a few moments (filled with uninformative but folksy chatter from Swift and the composer-in-attendance) to swab out, Kalman’s encore left him alone with just the strings for Royer’s Nocturne. Self-described as “inspired by [Chopin’s] characteristic musical aesthetic,” the work’s connection to the piano master seemed to be more from the technical requirements (all manner of running scales) than thematic or tonal similarities.

The octaves and unisons of the opening measures conjured up Copland’s Quiet City. Further in, the main theme immediately brought Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite to mind. And when a major chord emerged out of the musical fog, was that Paul Hindemith be lurking in the wings? Overall, with so much pastel (and a few excursions beyond as the first violins struggled into the stratosphere) there was “homage” but to a slightly older era.

Nonetheless, Kalman’s sensitivity and ability to lead or follow when appropriate provided some of the finest moments of the concert.

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony completed the program (which began with a sprightly reading of the Holst Suite, notable for confident string playing and spot-on tempi from Swift). It was a frustratingly uneven performance with much to admire but many serious deficiencies.

In the broadest sense, it lacked architecture and direction. With so few rehearsals it is difficult to “gel” such an exacting work. Witness the opening “Allegro,” where its essential repeat was abandoned, which—in turn—resulted in a complete lack of magic at the miracle of moving to D Major and no sense of “aha!” at the fortissimo (where the triplets came closer and closer to their duple sound-a-likes: the sixteenths).

Swift’s “Brook” began sublimely, with just the right speed and producing a relaxed but forward-looking sense of line. Marvellous! But as time went on, the “over-the-bar” feel stagnated, particularly when syncopated accompanying chords were rendered as if on the pulse rather than through it. The treacherous closing with birds all a-twitter let the quail escape the nest, leaving the cuckoo to fend for himself.

The “Peasants’ Merry-making” was great fun, marred only by the inexplicable articulation of the second C in the oboe’s jazzy line. The storm had drama but lacked urgency; the tympani merely entered instead of establishing a presence and—as the clouds cleared—the double basses went astray but were immediately rescued by the magical transition between the flute, clarinet (Kalman doing double duty!) and horn into “The Shepherd’s Hymn.”

In many ways the most demanding movement, the Finale requires the strings to use every inch of their bows and maintain solid left hands in order to create this amazing celebration of warmth and humanity. Again, overall direction and intermediate goals were lost in favour of “getting through.” All was revealed in the farewell measures where this most personal of Beethoven’s symphonies merely stopped, rather than concluded such a magnificent journey. JWR

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Conductor - Daniel Swift
Featured performer - Zoltán Kalman
Bassoon - Darlene Jussila
Brook Green Suite - Gustav Holst
Concerto for Clarinet No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 73 - Carl Maria von Weber
Nocturne for Clarinet and String Orchestra - Ronald Royer
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" - Ludwig van Beethoven
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