Sunday, March 16, 2014

New Jersey Symphony – Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor; Hilary Hahn, violin. March 15, 2014.

Prudential Hall, NJPAC, Newark.  Tier 2 (Seat A149, $29.)

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).
Giro (1981, rev. 1997) by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958).
The Firebird Suite (1945) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Let’s get to the bottom line.  A mediocre performance by a mediocre orchestra led by a mediocre conductor; even the headliner soloist couldn’t manage to bring any level of excitement to the evening.

And this is how my hope that the New Jersey Symphony has arrived into the big leagues was dashed.  Is it the acoustics?  Is it the dynamics?  Is it the intonation?  Is it the precision?  I honestly cannot haggle with any specific aspect of the evening, but a great performance is more than just getting things right, it is about being able to take the audience on a ride, whether it is one to marvel at the virtuosity of a soloist, or one to challenge one’s sense of tonality and harmony, or one through a mythical land of fantasy animals.  The performance failed on all counts.

After the last NJSO concert we attended, I steeled myself to give my “home team” another chance.  It should be easy with Hilary Hahn playing a concert favorite, right?  Things felt lackluster right at the start.  The Brahms violin concerto eventually calls for great speed from the soloist, so a comparatively slow-sounding start is to be expected.  However, this slow didn’t feel anticipatory, as it should, but rather felt like the result of someone dragging the orchestra to prevent it from going forward.  (The Chinese has a saying, “trying to lead a cow up a tree.”)  Hilary Hahn’s performance was technically flawless, although the sound was on the weak side.  Brahms when done well can take you on an emotional ride. That didn’t happen at all tonight.  I was left with admiring Hahn for her impeccable intonation and clean deliverance of the difficult passages.  Nothing to sneer at, but one expects that much more from a world-class performer.  She played an encore which was very enjoyable.  (I am quite sure it is one of Bach’s Partita movements.)

This longish concerto took up the first half of the program (total length about 40 minutes; the three movements are Allegro non troppo, Adagio, and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace.) Hahn did some record signing during intermission; she has quite a few fans.

Salonen’s music is usually quite accessible for the modern concert-goer, and this is no exception.  The piece was first written when he was in his 20s, although he revised it substantially about 15 years later.  The Program Notes describes it as “a symphonic poem along the lines of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.  My problem is I forgot that the order of the program for the evening was changed, so my mind was trying to process why Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite sounded so foreign to me.  I must admit even if I had realized at the get-go that this is Salonen, I would still be scratching my head.  To add insult to injury, I am sure I will claim I haven’t heard it before the next time I hear it.

The 1945 edition of Firebird is quite long at about 30 minutes.  In addition to the more familiar excerpts from the ballet, Stravinsky added some connecting music to the movements and called them “pantomimes.”  The program lists the following sections: Introduction and Dance of the Firebird, Pantomime I, Pas de deux, Pantomime II, Dance of the Princesses, Pantomime III, The Princesses’ Khorovod, Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, Berceuse, Finale.  As I said at the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was being taken into a land of fantasy at all.  Nonetheless, it is pleasant music, but without doing prior homework to remind myself what the movements are about, it doesn’t go much beyond that. 

How about the conductor?  I was telling myself he looked very good and energetic for an 80-year old.  A web search tells me that he is 66.  This somehow is congruent with how I feel the entire evening.

If I want to be detailed in this report, I should point out some bright spots in the evening, such as the nice oboe passages and a rather energetic third movement in the Brahms concerto.  But these moments are too few and far between to have any real impact on the overall evening.

Traffic around NJPAC is always busy, but we allowed ourselves a lot of time to get there.  Parking costs $16, but is just across the street.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't believe Joe attended the same concert that was presented last week. If he had his review surly would have reflected a much more positive response!