The National SO's season continued last Thursday with a program consisting
of Raff's transcription of a Bach Chaconne, BWV 1004; and the Berg Violin
Concerto and Berlioz's Harold in Italy, the latter two of which featured
Pinchas Zukerman as soloist.
The Bach was recognizable and well played. If you like the Stokowski
transcriptions, you'll like this. Joachim Raff (1822-1882) composed
eleven symphonies and much other music, but is largely forgotten now.
This piece, as Leonard Slatkin remarked in his brief pre-concert talk,
flies in the face of how we perceive Bach now. It was lush, romantic,
and, of course, played on modern instruments. But back when it was
composed, Bach was not considered the titan he is today, and any attempt
to make his music more accessible deserved credit. The piece lasted
about fifteen minutes and was arranged so naturally for orchestra that
it made me wonder what the solo violin version was like.
Zukerman then came on for the Berg VC. This piece still has not
totally cohered for me, but listening to it in live performance has
helped. I didn't have a huge epiphany that night, but the next day I
was thinking, "That was pretty good." So I'll definitely give it a few
more tries. Oddly enough, the recording I prefer is not Mutter's, but
the one issued as a BBC Music Magazine cover disc a couple of years ago.
After intermission, Zukerman switched gears, or at least instruments,
for Harold in Italy, a "Symphony with Viola obbligato." This was the
first time I had heard this piece, either in performance or on disc.
In the fourth movement, the soloist has very little to do for the last
ten or twelve minutes or so. So what did Zukerman do? He sat down in
the viola section and played just as unobtrusively as any member of the
section! This was a great gesture; it cast him as a musician, not just
a world renowned star. Harold in Italy was great stuff, tremendous fun
-- after the Berg VC, regardless what you think of it, you need a bit
of fun -- and Zukerman and the NSO really pulled out all the stops.
The Afterwords discussion was good as well. There was much talk
about the need for music education and the need to preserve the
orchestral/classical tradition. Zukerman and Slatkin, schoolmates at
Julliard, noted how important it was for orchestras to have an outreach
program. Zukerman is apparently doing very well at this in Canada, but
I wanted to ask Slatkin exactly where the NSO outreach was; just try
getting a discount senior or student ticket, and don't come to the Kennedy
Center without $15 to pay for parking. They make it tough for those who
can't afford it, and was it any coincidence that the KC was only about
60 percent full that night, even with a very well-known name? In light
of the Raff piece, Slatkin talked about period performance. He is not
a fan, and trotted out the usual argument: period performance is an
impossibility; we can't hear Bach as Bach heard it because we've heard
Berg and the whole canon of music that stemmed from Bach. You can't
visualize Caravaggio in the original because you have already seen
Picasso. He told a story about Neville Marriner. Marriner apparently
told Slatkin that he doesn't like to do period performance anymore because
it is so confusing (the bowings, vibrato, technique, and so forth). Even
Bach would not have approved: "If Bach had had a modern toilet, he would
have used it!", as Slatkin paraphrased Marriner.
This was an unexpectedly exceptional installment in the NSO season,
an imaginatively programmed evening with a very engaging and articulate
guest soloist who was not afraid to play "second fiddle" in performance
or speak frankly and humorously in discussion. Due to my mixing and
matching of concerts, my next concert won't be until January 19: an
all-Strauss program including Four Last Songs.