Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spring Classical: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The Bella Terra Mafia and I hit the season's last concert at the Naples Philharmonic on Friday night, for a performance of Tchaikovsky's polonnaise from "Eugene Onegin," Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto, and Dvorák's "New World" Symphony. The performance was a mixed bag, as always, hence the mini-tribute to one of my all-time favourite Westerns.

The Good: Pianist Joyce Yang, a twenty-two year old Korean waif, who tackled Tchaikovsky's demanding concerto with remarkable aplomb. Although the tempo tended to be rushed at times, unnecessarily raising the concerto's severe degree of difficulty, she never once botched the notation, and she attacked the loud tutti passages with more than enough ferocity to not get drowned out by the orchestra. She was also kind enough to pose for a few photos after the performance.

The Bad: The Philharmonic's brass section. Gotta give them points for being consistent, as they continue to earn their "bane of my existence" status by consistently sucking. I counted at least seven botched duck snorts, one of them so unfortunate that I thought for a second someone had farted. At least the Cor Anglais did a nice job during the second movement of the New World Symphony.

The Ugly: The crowd. Halted the piano concerto by idiotically applauding at the end of the first movement, and were up to their usual tricks of waiting until the performance started before noisily rooting through purses for tissue, glasses, candy, whatev, talking during the music, blowing their noses, snoring, and, in what was a first even for my jaded arse, audibly humming the lovely first theme of the piano concerto's second movement. No matter, I'm still thankful these ignorant dolts contribute heavily to the Philharmonic. Considering how small our little town is, having a pretty good orchestra with enough caché to present a full season's worth of performances and lure excellent soloists is a privilege.

Recommended performances: Dvorák's "New World" Symphony is a very popular work, so there are many excellent recordings of this masterpiece, including top-notch versions by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and the grossly underrated performance by Rafael Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic... but none of these can touch Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra's fiery rendition. I actually had the privilege of seeing Chrissy VD and the Clevelanders perform this at Severance Hall, and I still haven't caught my breath from the exhilaration.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto is also a staple of the classical repertoire, so, again, many outstanding versions of it are available. Some of my faves include Emil Gilels with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, Artur Rubinstein with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, and Sviatoslav Richter with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Perhaps the best recording, but definitely the most famous, is Van Cliburn's towering performance, accompanied by the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. Be that as it may, Richter's rendition of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto is particularly noteworthy because it inspired one of the best-ever Monty Python skits:

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