Carnegie Hall’s Season Ends the Way It Began

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The New York Sun

The Carnegie Hall season came to an end on Tuesday night, with a concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Do you remember how Carnegie’s season began, back in September? With a concert by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. The Russians were conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, and their program ended with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. That performance was okay – but no better.

As it happened, the Pittsburghers ended their concert on Tuesday night with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. That performance, too, was okay but no better. And we can say the same for the concert as a whole. You want to go out with a bang, but sometimes you have to settle for … okay.

Conducting the PSO was Christoph von Dohnanyi, the veteran German maestro. he PSO has no permanent conductor at present, making due with a triumvirate (which does not include Mr. Dohnanyi). The orchestra is spinning this as a wonderful opportunity to work with a variety of conductors, to involve the players in “artistic and strategic planning,” etc. They also point out that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gets along without a permanent conductor.

True, but the VPO is the VPO. In my opinion, the PSO could use a strong, capable, long-term leader. Of course, who couldn’t? (And even the Viennese might be better off if the right man came along.)

The PSO’s season-ender for Carnegie Hall served up Bartok, Haydn, and the Tchaikovsky. The Bartok they began with was the Divertimento for String Orchestra, a winning piece from 1939. Mr. Dohnanyi has certainly proven his mettle in Bartok. For example, he led the New York Philharmonic in a (concert) performance of the opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” last March. That was a memorable experience.

The Divertimento did not go so well. This piece needs to have precision and verve, which it was deprived of. The first movement was almost sleepy – without tension, without a current. Mr. Dohnanyi often exudes a relaxedness, which can be good. But relaxedness must not turn into flaccidity, at least in music like this.

The second movement, marked Molto adagio, is one of Bartok’s finest creations. It is night music, and creepily moving. The orchestra intoned the theme in a rightly measured way. And the material built powerfully – slowly, inexorably. This might remind you of Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” (composed in 1909).

Ending the Divertimento is an Allegro assai – and it needed a brighter sound, plus simply more oomph. More engagement, more purpose. We – I – don’t ask Mr. Dohnanyi to go crazy. He is a relatively restrained man. But he knows better than merely to wave through a piece.

The concert continued with one of Haydn’s very best symphonies, No. 88 in G, a model of mirth and invention. If you can’t grin at this symphony, you can’t grin at music. I consider it an older cousin of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F.

Mr. Dohnanyi and the orchestra began it superbly: with nobility, assuredness, a sense of occasion. But this opening Adagio soon gives way to an Allegro – and where was mirth, or pleasure, or fun? Mr. Dohnanyi seemed indifferent to this music (an impossibility, one would think). I sometimes cite Alexander Hamilton’s famous phrase, “energy in the executive.” It wasn’t there. Mr. Dohnanyi may be simply too serene for his own good. Haydn wants to chortle along, vibrantly, but the conductor did not.

The Largo was passable, and the minuet was really excellent: unified, stylish, well sculpted. And the trio of this movement had a lovely, unforced country feeling.

How about the closing movement, Allegro con spirito (whose tempo marking should say it all)? A bit sloppy, and sadly short on spirito.

The concert – and the Carnegie Hall season – ended the way Tchaikovsky ended: with the Symphony No. 6, dubbed the “Pathetique.” Despite its popularity (!), this is a very great work of music, and if you think so but your friends pooh-pooh you, ignore them: They’re wrong, and you’re right. The first movement on Tuesday night was a welcome success. Solo playing was first-rate, and so was the playing at large. Mr. Dohnanyi let the music be warm and expansive, without permitting any mush.

The second movement – that waltz – was decent, but the third – that boffo, slaying march in G major – was flat. Not flat in pitch but, again, in spirit. When it was over, the man behind me said – loudly – “Wow.” But I believe he was responding more to the music than to the performance. The music is wow-making indeed.

And, finally, the Adagio lamentoso? This was not playing to wring tears from you, but Tchaikovsky got his awful, “pathetic” message across.

It won’t be long till October 4, when Carnegie opens its 2006-07 season. That night will bring the Cleveland Orchestra under its music director, Franz Welser-Most. Soloists will be the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. That ought to be good – although, in music, as in other fields, you shouldn’t bet the ranch.

The New York Sun

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