Saturday, May 19, 2007

An evening at the Naples Philharmonic

Last Friday, after a typically unproductive day slaving over my so-called thesis, we ventured over to the Phil for the final concert of the season. We arrived in plenty of time to grab a drink and a smoke and, as a bonus, to see a member of our group spill wine on her sweater twice in the space of half a minute. Our seats were in the left end of the center section, in the second row, allowing us an excellent view of the conductor and the first strings. The program kicked off with Mexican composer Blas Galindo’s “Son de Mariachis,” a surprisingly pleasant and melodic pastiche of Mariachi tunes. It’s the fourth Mexican piece I’ve seen at the Phil ever since Jorge Mester took over as Music Director two seasons ago. And in completely unrelated news, he’s Mexican. I guess I should be thankful he’s not Middle Eastern…

The first showcase piece of the evening was Antonín Dvorák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, a perennial favourite. Like the New World Symphony, the Cello Concerto was written during Dvorák’s tenure at the New York Conservatory. As such, many pundits claim to hear Native American and/or Negro Spiritual influences in both of these works. In the immortal words of Hannibal Lecter, “I myself cannot.” Both works are Bohemian through and through. The Cello Concerto’s music is beautiful, gloomy, and driven gently but relentlessly forward, with ample opportunities for the soloist to display his/her portamento and technique.

The soloist this evening was a young up-and-coming Russian cellist, Alexander Bouzlov. Ridiculously outdated bouffant aside, Bouzlov displayed a nicely refined taste and skill. Being a nitpicky malcontent, however, I had two problems with his performance: some sloppy passage work, especially during the fiendish arpeggios of the final movement, and an overall lack of tone strength – at times, the orchestra drowned him out completely. Nonetheless, Bouzlov played a very polished version. I was especially pleased at his lavish but not overdone use of glissando. I imagine it must be tough to find a happy medium here: too little glissando, and you might as well play a piano; too much glissando, and you might as well join a band of gypsies and play sappy czardas all day. All in all, I have yet to hear a version of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto that comes even remotely close to being worthy of comparison to Jacqueline du Pré’s phenomenal rendition. Nonetheless, I thought Bouzlov’s version compared favourably to Yo Yo Ma’s rather bland performance, and maybe even Rostropovich’s interpretation (technically superb but unforgivably devoid of emotion, and with bizarre tempi to boot).

The concluding showpiece was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Mussorgsky was a gifted composer, but he was also lazy and undisciplined. As a result, he failed to orchestrate most of his pieces after he finished composing them. He died young, most likely as a result of his raging alcoholism. “Pictures at an Exhibition” was scored posthumously by various other composers. The most widely known version of the piece is Maurice Ravel’s. It’s a very polished orchestration, and although at times Ravel gets a little too cute with his unusual and overdone choice of instruments, I doubt that Mussorgsky himself could have done a better job.

The orchestra played the piece reasonably well, but the brass section (aka “the bane of my existence”) continued their annoying penchant for coming in a half-beat late at all times. Not to pick on Mester, but in my opinion, this problem is directly attributable to him. His conducting is very sloppy at times, giving the impression that the orchestra doesn't rehearse enough, and his tempo selection is at times completely insane – Bydlo, for example, was a crawl; I guess the cattle were either drugged or suffered from some sort of mass lethargy. Nonetheless, the orchestra generated a pretty awesome volume during the tutti, especially during The Great Gate of Kiev, and the strings and woodwinds played very well. Overall, it was a satisfying performance.

Recommended versions of both works:

Jacqueline du Pré, soloist, Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim (her hubby).

The orchestra in this recording is a little uneven, but du Pré is on fire, exhibiting a richness of tone that has yet to be equaled – she must have had fingers of steel. Her technique here is flawless, and at times, her cello actually sounds like a human lament. Here’s the first movement:

The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi.

Easily the best version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” that has ever been recorded, with one huge drawback: instead of including Rimsky-Korsakov’s sublime orchestration of “A Night on the Bare Mountain,” this CD includes Mussorgsky’s sloppy, uneven, and apparently uncompleted score (typical). A shame. Here’s the first picture, Gnomus:


iblee said...

Nice re-cap; but I can't agree about the post on my childhood hero: Spidey. Anything is better than those pathetic 70's or early 80's movies.

Bitter Clevelander said...

Have you seen Spidey 3? Trust me, it's even worse than advertised. It almost made me long for the crappy cartoon version I used to watch in the 70's.