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In Performance: Maazel at the NSO

In today's Washington Post: Maazel and National Symphony: No Technical Difficulties, by Anne Midgette.

By Anne Midgette  |  October 16, 2009; 11:18 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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It seems I have been less in complete agreement with Anne this year than last. I didn’t care for the Mussorgsky very much. I didn’t get a sense of crisp entrances but did of taut pauses. I did not hear more of a sense of ensemble than I usually do. Certainly not more than what I heard with Morlot last week. I did feel that what the orchestra was playing was what Maazel wanted them to play. I just didn’t care for his interpretation, probably because of my expectations for this piece which I have heard about a zillion times. This piece was the signature tune for a 40’s radio show “Escape” where I listened to it every week when my parents thought I was asleep. In last night’s performance, it was as if the stage had been reversed; with instruments I was used to being in the background moved to the fore and vice versa. Some parts I could barely hear at all. (When different parts of the orchestra are playing different lines of music, what does one call each of those lines? Themes? Threads? Parts?) Recognizing that one's reaction to a concert is highly colored by one's expectations, I tried to sit back and imagine I was hearing this for the first time. I would have enjoyed it for sure, but I must admit that I like the usual interpretation better.

I actually enjoyed “The Giving Tree” and thought the music and words went well together. It is no “Peter and the Wolf.” I did not come out humming. I have a problem with connecting on an emotional level with most contemporary music I hear. At the risk of humiliating myself by exposing my meager intellect, I must admit that I do like a pretty tune. Even so, I enjoyed the performance and the image it provoked in me was the joy and pain of motherhood. I also thought it was a good idea to move it ahead of the Barber in the program.

I like the Barber violin concerto very much, but have come to this piece late in life. In fact, I think I first paid attention to it when I heard it paired on a CD with Edgar Meyer’s violin concerto. And so, for me, Hilary Hahn owns this concerto. I have always gotten a kick out of watching Salerno-Sonnenberg play. I think of it as attack violin and she seems to end up picking hairs off her bow more often than other performers. I warmed to Salerno-Sonnenberg when I heard her play Shostakovich’s violin concerto and in so doing, explained it to me. My expectation for her approach to the Barber was not very high and perhaps as a result I thoroughly enjoyed it. The violin was very subdued in the first movement, like a cautious person at a party, waiting around in the crowd, scoping things out, and I had trouble hearing it at times, but the next two movements were just fine. The second movement must be one of the loveliest pieces of music played in today's concert halls. It is for me, heart achingly beautiful. Initially it seems that the loveliest portion of the entire work features the oboe and not the putative solo violin, but by the end of the movement, the violin gets its say. The finale is just plain fun. Is there such a word as freudenschade, melancholy from beauty? I thought that the quote of Virgil Thomson, “The only reason Barber gets away with elementary musical methods is that his heart is pure,” was a wonderful quote but also a telling one. Elementary is bad, complex is good. If it was hard to write, it should be hard to listen to. Music that lifts the heart is ear candy and rots the brain. It gives us a sugar high but eventually leaves us quarrelsome. And that is probably the source of my argument with contemporary concert music.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, my classical music listening was limited to a few short programs on the University of Illinois radio station and two file cabinet drawers of LPs at the Illini Union. Remarkably, one of those LPs was the Franck D Minor symphony. So I heard it quite a few times 50 years ago and not very much since. It is an entertaining and interesting piece, but not for me emotionally uplifting. It is certainly loud but with a particularly disappointing finish. I almost had a sense that the audience was surprised when Maazel lowered his arms. That’s it? It’s over? And while I found the brass subdued in the Mussorgsky, I found it almost jarring in the Franck.

Anne said in her review it was possible to wax enthusiastic and still not love the evening, but my reaction was less enthusiasm, though the Barber made it for me an evening I loved.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | October 16, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks to both Anne Midgette and Commenter William Kirchhoff for their insightful thoughts on the Maazel/NSO concerts. Having attended the Friday evening performance, I had one small observation I wanted to share and maybe generate others' ideas. I was struck by the fact that many in the audience applauded after both of the first two movements of the Barber Concerto and, again, after the first movement of the Frank Symphony (and I think some started to clap after the second movement of the Frank, but the orchestra jumped right into the finale). It's not completely uncommon to hear a smattering of applause after the first movement of a concerto, which I usually think of as a salute to the soloist. But I was surprised that the pattern continued throughout the evening. At first, my inner snob harrumphed about this breach of concert hall protocol. But thinking about it on the ride home, I remembered, when I first started to pay attention to classical music as a high school student, how strange the custom of not applauding between movements seemed to me -- particularly when the first movement ends with a real bang. The silence, broken only by the inevitable coughing, the turning of pages by the musicians and the ruffling of patrons' programs or other items, seemed incredibly awkward and unnatural. I'd be curious to know if between-movements applause happened at the Thursday and Saturday evening performances. And I wonder if anyone else has any thoughts on this general question. Might it make for a more relaxed and less stuffy atmosphere at concerts if we lightened up a bit, maybe let off a little steam, and in the process gave some props to the musicians? Or does that break the mood and continuity of the piece? How do the musicians themselves feel about this?

Posted by: tedloud | October 17, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

No applause between movements on Thursday night. There are occasions when I hear hesitant applause between movements which signals unfamiliarity with concert hall protocol, but on others, it seems to be a genuine surge of appreciation for a particularly well played movement or affection for the soloist. I am not particularly bothered when I hear it, but I do not participate myself.

I have been going to the Bach Festival in May in Bethlehem, PA, for about 30 years now and in the early days, there was no applause following the performances. The cantatas were considered sacred works and their performance and hearing acts of worship. Whether or not one viewed it as such, it was curiously moving to walk out silently with the echos of the music still ringing in our ears.

I think the musicians deserve to know how much we appreciate their artistry, but I would also like to experience once again an impressive silence at the end.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | October 18, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

It was with excitement that I searched the Post for a review of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's brilliant performance of the Barber violin concerto that we heard on Friday night at the Kennedy Center. I have never been in more disagreement with any review I have ever read about any performance. Were we listening to the same performer on Friday night that Midgette reviews from Thursday night? We have followed Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's career for well over 15 years, have seen her perform well over 20 times and have never heard anything remotely "sloppy" played by her. She is not considered one of the greatest violinists ever by playing in a manner which you unfortunately deem "not very attractive." I do not think Salerno-Sonnenberg gives a damn about how she looks when she is playing, but she cares deeply about manifesting the music to it's utmost perfection. We have never heard her give less, and Friday night was no exception. I think the audience would agree, since she received three huge standing ovations after her performance.

Are you familiar with the Barber piece? Do you think the well placed pianissimo playing by Salerno-Sonnenberg was a mistake? It sounded completely integrated with the orchestra. We never felt at any time that the soloist or the orchestra were ever subordinate to one another.

Perhaps you should have come Friday night as well, but then you would have had to sit through another performance of the worst composition we have ever heard, that dismal Giving Tree. It truly was hideous and only detracted from the rest of the program.

s good/v cutchin

Posted by: sgood | October 18, 2009 11:15 PM | Report abuse

This time I am in agreement with Anne with regards to the precision of the NSO under Maazel. Where I do not agree is about The Giving Tree which was an insult and which threw off the balance of the concert: Mussorgsky, Barber, and Franck should have been enough. As for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, I don't care if she doesn't want to dress formally but at least she should do it with taste: she looked ridiculous Saturday. Didn't care too much for her mannerism, either.

No applause between movements on Saturday.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 19, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure Eschenbach is going to help. Saturday, BBC 3' CD Review panned his new reording of the Brahms 1st while praising that by Ivan Fischer to the skies. Could the NSO be heading in the same direction as the local football team with the offensive name?

Posted by: petercapitolhill | October 21, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

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