Monday, March 05, 2012

Christoph von Dohnányi Visits the KC Symphony

There are maestros and then there are maestros. If I was speaking those words you would hear the subtle accent on the second maestro. Christoph von Dohnányi is undeniably a member of that upper rank.

German born Dohnányi has enjoyed a stellar career with orchestras and opera companies all over Europe and the US. He is mostly remembered here for his long and productive tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra in the 80s and 90’s. There he mentored several young conductors including current New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert and one Michael Stern, Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony.

Stern was in the audience for the Sunday performance to hear his old boss lead his orchestra in a thoughtfully conceived program of three works that contrasted humor and hijinks with somber reality. Opening the program was Alfred Schnittke’s absurdist tour-de-force (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (Not a Summer Night’s Dream), followed by Richard Strauss’ comic/tragic “Till Eulenspiegel”. The second half consisted of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony # 6 “Pathétique”.

The full house Sunday audience caught and appreciated the humor of Schnittke’s 10 minute homage to Shakespeare’s cast of impish characters. Written in 1985 just before a near fatal stroke, (K)ein Sommernachtstraum comes from his polystylistic period (where basically anything was fair game) before his declining health turned his music bleak and gray, making late Shostakovich sound like a Strauss polka.

The work begins with a solo starting deep in the 2nd violins (Schnittke puckishly specifies the musician occupying the back desk of the 2nd violins, technically the farthest one from the Concertmaster’s position). Accompanied by piano, the melody is so simple and sweet that one could be forgiven in thinking that Mozart had been substituted without warning. Quickly taken up by flute and harpsichord, the melody is subjected to gradual layering of dissonances and transformations: a demented carnival ride waltz, a banal and amateurish Ivesian march, shattering climaxes and hints of Schubert and Romantic excesses slide in and out before the sweet melody returns to the flute and violin in glorious C major… with just a hint of tolling, ominous bells.

Dohnányi was in firm control, yet let the mayhem progress with wit and style. I heard many chuckles and noted frequent smiles from the audience. One fellow behind me exclaimed “I really liked that!”  For even more bizarre Schnittke, find a recording of the Symphony # 1. I have never been able to get through it.

Dohnányi’s Till Eulenspiegel was a fine performance with vivid color, enabled by fine playing from all the symphony sections, especially the essential brass and winds, but maybe a bit too controlled. With amazing clarity and ability to coax all the virtuosity out of the orchestra, Dohnányi and his forces brought out motifs and colors that I have not heard in live performances before. Perhaps in emphasizing clarity he underplayed some of the chaotic, skittering rhythms. The final funeral march and execution was certainly dramatic enough, with powerful horns and solid strings. I wished for a bit more scream from the shrill and Eb Clarinet as Till was strung up on the gallows as it was swallowed a bit by the large forces. This is an episodic work and Dohnányi verily mocked the stuffy academics, spun a lustily brash love scene as Till flirted with all the girls and wrung the drama and terror from the aforementioned march to the scaffold. I adore Dohnányi’s Cleveland recording with Decca, so maybe I have that perfect performance imprinted in my head. With just some minor quibbles, this one was really pretty close.

The second half Pathétique was one of many outstanding moments; a fine paced, brassy march, an elegant Allegro con gracia, and a deeply passionate finale. The opening movement began with an almost perfectly inaudible bassoon solo by associate principal bassoon Miles Maner (exactly what Tchaikovsky wanted, it is famously marked pppppp). Brass intonation was a bit problematic here and in the rest of the symphony as well. Although finely played, the first movement just did not seem to take off. Again, as in the Strauss, it seemed to be Dohnányi’s penchant to control and bring out detail. However, as the work progressed through its 4 movements, I saw that Dohnányi correctly judged the subtitle of the work to mean “passionate” not “pitiful” or hysterical”. This was a journey of many paths, some taken, some abandoned, some more important than others. The hushed ending was thus not a let down but a solemn and inevitable letting go. Noisier, more dramatic and faster performances abound of this masterpiece, but few are as cogent and ultimately satisfying as this mature and expressive performance.

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