The between-season challenge
In New York, as in many other cities, the stretch of time between May and July is a fallow period for music. The winter seasons of the orchestras, operas , and concerts have wound down, while the summer events have not yet begun.
The problem has been exacerbated of late by 52-week contracts for orchestras and a need to find way of having them play rather than merely collect paychecks. Boston, for instance, has no problem: The Boston Pops has always been a profitable way of solving the problem. But the Pop's success is unique to Boston.
In New York, the late Andre Kostelanetz tried his brand, billed as "Promenades Concerts" which never made money. Boulez tried rug concerts. Now the New York Philharmonic is trying festivals -- this year, devoted to music of the Romantic era.
At the same time, Carnegie Hall has started its own Festival Concerts of chamber and chamber orchestra music, under the artistic direction of Pinchas Zukerman. The management of the hall would hope that this series will become as anticipated for May-June as Mostly Mozart is in July-August. Both institutions are still in need of the right formula.
The festival idea is a good one. The orchestra apparently enjoys the idea, and if a certain interraction of conductor, soloist, and program were to be established, this could become an idea that would sell itself. It's a tall order, but hardly an impossible one.
At Carnegie Hall the notion seems to have been that Mr. Zukerman would be enough of a draw. What he alone did not bring in, the programming of Schubert and Bartok would. Last year Zukerman was given the St. Paul chamber Orchestra. His predecessor, Dennis Russell Davies, had built the group into America's outstanding chamber orchestra, yet the program's history of the ensemble does not mention him once. Zukerman is a fine violinist, a less accomplished (though always in demand) violist, and a conductor of sometimes flagging inspiration but at the very threshold of the craft.
But he is a publicizable name for recordings. His records sell, and that alone seems to be enough these days to get anyone the head of any orchestral institution in this country. So why not bring his orchestra to town in June? In two programs, Zukerman showed very little affinity for Schubert or Bartok, content to beat time and express generalized moods, rather that exploiting the riches of the score in musical, structural, or even purely aural terms.
One has only to turn to the orchestra's performance of the work under Mr. Davies on Nonesuch 71335 to know what the music contains. A Schubert Third Symphony passed without incident -- favorable or negative -- and a Schubert Second Symphony offered a generalized brio, some handsome playing from the orchestra, and little else.
Many concerts in the series have been preceded by miniconcerts -- mostly in the Recital Hall -- that complement the evening's program, with several important chamber groups on hand, including the exceptional Vermeer Quartet, and several notable soloists joining Mr. Zukerman for evenings of star-powered chamber music. The entire festival seemed rather programmatically slapdash, however. It will take a while for the powers that be at Carnegie to establish an image for these concerts. If Mr. Zukerman is to be left in general command, he is going to have to do a good deal more playingm to draw in the crowds.
Drawing in the crowds is also a problem at Avery Fisher Hall. A few seasons back, a Mahler festival was a sellout, Mahler always being a consistent draw. But since then it has been nip and tuck, with fewer than hoped-for concertgoers nipping at the box office. This current season had serious problems with cancellations, and the backbone of the festival was to have been the appearances of Kirill Kondrashin, who passed on in Amsterdam in April.
Musically, the selections were not all strictly of the Romantic era. A conspicuous lack of star power has been another problem. The opening concert with Itzhak Perlman was full to the rafters, but two concerts with James Galway were not. But then again, Perlman playing the Mendelssohn is a stronger draw than Galway playing a Reinecke Flute Concerto twice. Curiosity seekers might have turned out to hear Liszt's "A Faust Symphony," a work almost never done in the concert halls of New York. Rimsky-Korsakov fans would probably make the effort to hear. "Scheherazade," though Andrew Davis is not yet the sort of conducting name to reckon with at the box office.
But surprises were in order at Avery Fisher on an artistic level. Mr. Zukerman surprised in a reverse way for his want of musical inspiration on a podium. James Conlon, who has not shown himself off especially well either at the Metropolitan Opera or with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, turned in an accomplished, confident, often exciting account of the Liszt. Even though the 73-minute work needs more of an alchemist than Mr. Conlon is at this point in his career, he managed the big moments with genuine dramatic flair.
Mr. Davis, who has usually been rather unpliant and stiff of musical gesture, revealed a new, grittier facet of his musical personality in his all-Russian evening. His "Scheherazade" was less suave than normal (a real plus), volatile, emphatic, and refeshingly direct. The Borodin overture to "Prince Igor" was raucous and fun. He made the most of the Conus Violin Concerto, a work that Jascha Heifetz once played often in public.
It is a fine showcase for a suave supervirtuoso. Unfortunately, Rosa Fain, in her United States debut, was not up to the extrovert digital wizardry of the showcase passages. Once acclimated to her very broad, almost quavery vibrato, one could appreciate the quieter passages for thier innate beauty and skillful exploitation of the instruemnt's sonorities. The Conus is refreshing -- not a major work, but equally as engaging as the Glazounov, which still commands attention.
Christoph von Dohnanyi, grandson of the composer Erno, is a growing presence on records, yet is rarely heard here in the United States. He accompanied Mr. Galway in the Reinecke, a depressingly forgettable work, even with Mr. Galway's magical presence to vitalize it. Galway orchestrated a piece by Doppler, for which he was joined by Philharmonic principal flutist Julius Baker -- fun but empty. Dohnanyi devoted the second half of the program to Schumann's Second Symphony -- a quintessentially Romantic work. His tempos were rather brisk, but they worked well, and he rose to the haunting beauties of the Adagio memorably.
Throughout the three concerts, the New York Philharmonic sounded challenged and interesting -- quite unlike anything else I have heard it do this season.