Gustavo Dudamel leads the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

Wunderkindfest. Unless you are a stubborn opinionator, performances can confuse you at times. I was flummoxed last night at the Proms by Gustavo Dudamel and his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, in a concert I was expecting to enjoy, though not to the utmost. The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique wore out its welcome many years ago, and only a brilliant performance can redeem it for me. That Dudamel did not deliver. Sparkling as he is in the bright media limelight, the skyrocketing young Venezuelan has to have the goods, too. In this case, his reading was flat, disjointed, and plodding, with a drawn-out Scene aux champs that lasted long enough for Madame Defarge to knit a quilt. The guillotine movement that followed was coarse and blatty, which is how the whole reading went, either in slow mo with exaggerated emphases or sped up recklessly. Dudamel’s inability to sustain tension in soft passages, one of the most blatant failings in a bad conductor, shocked me.

The Best French Movie in Decades – The 2008 Tour de France

It was a childhood case of chicken pox which first introduced me to the Tour de France. The year was 1989, fortunately a very choice vintage indeed, in which Minnesota’s Greg Lemond clawed back 58 seconds between Versailles and Paris to defeat the hapless Parisian ex-dental student Laurent Fignon. I remember my confusion, a common response among those new to the Tour, as to which of the two was actually the Frenchman.

Berlioz, Les Troyens, a Concert Performance and a Symposium

Les Troyens is so widely accepted as Berlioz’s greatest work, that the progress of the Berlioz Renaissance is punctuated by performances of it in the opera house and in concert, beginning, arguably, with Sir Thomas Beecham’s moderately abridged 1947 BBC broadcast. Now Boston music-lovers may consider the Berlioz Renaissance to be something of a noble fiction, since his music has had its own secure place in the Boston Symphony repertoire for many years, maturing with Charles Munch’s arrival in 1949. During his tenure he and the BSO performed and recorded several of Berlioz’s most important works, and the recordings are still considered among the best. Later, both Jean Martinon and Seiji Ozawa continued the tradition most capably, and Berlioz has been one of James Levine’s great enthusiasms since early in his career.

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, conductor

Les Troyens is so widely accepted as Berlioz’s greatest work, that the progress of the Berlioz Renaissance is punctuated by performances of it in the opera house and in concert, beginning, arguably, with Sir Thomas Beecham’s moderately abridged 1947 BBC broadcast. Now Boston music-lovers may consider the Berlioz Renaissance to be something of a noble fiction, since his music has had its own secure place in the Boston Symphony repertoire for many years, maturing with Charles Munch’s arrival in 1949. During his tenure he and the BSO performed and recorded several of Berlioz’s most important works, and the recordingsare still considered among the best. Later, both Jean Martinon and Seiji Ozawa continued the tradition most capably, and Berlioz has been one of James Levine’s great enthusiasms since early in his career. Expertise in Berlioz seems to be a prerequisite for the job. Yet, this is the first complete performance of Les Troyens by the foremost Berlioz orchestra in America, which in the past has only played brief excerpts, above all the “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Act IV. Hence these concert performances of Parts I and II on following weeks, culminating in a complete performance on Sunday May 4, are in fact landmarks.

BSO, Levine: Harbison, Symphony No. 5, Mahler, Das Lied Von Der Erde, Symphony Hall

As in November, James Levine has chosen to pair a work of Mahler with the premiere of a commissioned work, this time, not Elliot Carter’s brief, dense, but deceptively limpid Horn Concerto, but an ambitious symphony for mezzo-soprano, baritone and massive orchestra by John Harbison. It was only after Harbison had begun to make sketches that Maestro Levine, exercising his substantial gifts as a patron of new music, suggested that voices would be a welcome addition. The composer responded by taking up works by three poets who have been particularly highly regarded in recent years, the late Czesław Miłosz, Louise Glück, and, as the classic guest, Rainer Maria Rilke. These texts extend throughout the four movements like wall-to-wall carpeting, and one might get the impression that they had come to dominate the symphony, if its orchestral foundations and symphonic structure were not as strong as they are. The result is a work which attempts to do justice to two objectives: the expressive setting of narrative and lyrical verse and a fully-realized symphonic work. One might think that such a duality might prove a recipe for disaster, but in Harbison’s intelligent and experienced hands, the result is a double, if still somewhat divided, success.

Black Watch from the National Theatre of Scotland

The Iraq War is an infuriating abomination and I am more than happy to see anything that attacks it. I am also, as it happens, not against seeing fine theatre. Therefore, I was delighted to see two birds killed with one stone at the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of the Edinburgh Festival hit Black Watch at the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) in Glasgow, as the play continues its tour through the UK, and then on to North America. [Since its first performance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006 in an unused drill shed, Black Watch has played before sold out audiences and won numerous awards, not only the Fringe First, but South Bank Show Award for Theatre, the Critics’ Circle Awards (to John Tiffany as Best Director) and others. It played to sold-out audiences at St. Ann’s Warehouse,Brooklyn in October-November 2007, and will return there in October 2008. – ed.]

Alfred Brendel’s Farewell Recital in Boston, Symphony Hall, Boston: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

For his Boston farewell program, Alfred Brendel chose a selective cross-section of the repertoire he has cultivated through much of his career, and a fascinating selection it was, both in terms of Mr. Brendel’s taste and the inter-relationships between these mostly classical composers. [Click here for a review of his New York farewell with James Levine and the Met Orchestra.] There was no Schoenberg, no Schumann, and Liszt only as an encore. One felt that he had concentrated on the very marrow of his repertory. On the other hand, it came as a powerful discovery to experience the various forms—the overall shapes—of these four works within the compass of a single concert. Brendel has always been especially strong in comprehending and delineating classical structure and form, and now, at the very end of his public career, he appears to have distilled it to the utmost. Haydn’s rich F minor variations, which unfold over a melancholy walking figure in the bass, preceded the musically unusual, but traditionally constructed Mozart sonata, which concludes with an introspective rondo, also set at an ambling pace, cobbled from an earlier independent work. After this, Beethoven’s concentrated Sonata quasi una Fantasia, seemed like a revolutionary outburst, although all Beethoven actually did was to pare his movement-structures down to the point where they could function in support of an improvisatory style. After the break these three strikingly different, but equally terse classical works were followed by Schubert’s Romantic expansion of classical form to encompass a wealth of drawn-out melodies, harmonic invention, and subtle changes of mood.

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