SINS OF MY DEJA VU
“Equally rare was the slickly pretentious sonata for violin and cello of Ravel, performed by [Boris] Koutzen and son George with skill and understanding. [signed] A.R.” New York Sun, February 17, 1948.
Hearing Ravel’s imaginatively colored Sonata at last week’s Philharmonic Chamber Music concert, its marvelous string of conversations on matters sophisticated, sometimes exotic, a faint and not very happy memory came around to ruffle my conscience. Later, at home, I dug through yellowed newsprint and came across the above shameful item, back from my days as stringer for the late Irving Kolodin at the New York Sun, when I was called upon to write about dozens of concerts, hearing a lot of music for the first time, but obsessed with the necessity to express an opinion on every work, familiar or not. I know stringers here in town these days obsessed of the same delusion, and as I have ripened into a deeper understanding of music, so has my passion increased to wring every one of their goddam necks.
At Disney the Ravel was played by Philharmonic members Robert Vijay Gupta and Ben Hong with, as I was saying, “skill and understanding.” It is really a wise and complex work, full of contrapuntal devices and borrowings from other adventurous composers of the time – Kodály, Bartók. (Hear it again next Friday, same performers, at the Culver City Town Hall.) Actually, this was one of the most rewarding of the Philharmonic’s chamber concerts; the Brahms Horn Trio ensued, one of that Hamburger’s less uningratiating works – actually bright at times – and the concluding Mendelssohn Trio was, for once, not the overplayed D-minor but the C minor, positively jaunty by contrast.
Camille Avellano, William Lane and Norman Krieger performed the Brahms; Johnny Lee, Brent Samuel and Chris Weldon, the Mendelssohn, — all Philharmonickers, of course, but their credentials pale to ash beside the blurbs for the Ravel gang. Get a load: Robert Gupta, who joined the Philharmonic two years ago, at 19, studied with Isaac Stern among others, and between practice sessioms took part in research projects in neuro- and neurodegenerative biology. He has worked on spinal chord neuronal regeneration and on the pathology of Parkinson’s disease and, if you’re ready, has authored an award-winning study on the toxicological effects of platinum nanoparticles on embryonic chickens.
And then there’s Ben Hong, who rides three sports motorcycles, bicycles, scuba dives, practices martial arts and West African drumming.
And did I tell you about my B.A.? All the way to pre-med, I’ll have you know.
FELICITIES: This is a Felix Mendelssohn year (along with Lincoln, Haydn, probably more…). We’ve already gotten Elijah out of the way; let’s hope that also absolves us of St. Paul. There are small Mendelssohn treasures – orchestrations of some of the piano pieces and a hilarious choral number affixed to the finale of the “Scotch” Symphony – in the music Erich Korngold concocted for his filmscore for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now finally out on DVD. Last week James Conlon crossed the street to Disney Hall, to guest-conduct the Philharmonic in all-Mendelssohn, a program if anything too short; I would have wanted more of the miraculous “Dream” music, but that would have meant bringing in a women’s chorus, and the economy, you know… Anyhow, Conlon is attached to the First Symphony, which the Philharmonic had never before played. (Imagine!)
This Symphony is more than a curio, not quite a masterpiece; it stands honorably beside the boyhood symphonies of Schubert as thoroughly proficient and certainly worth a place in the repertory. It is delightfully easy to fathom what was on its composer’s mind: the Mozart 40th and 41st high on the list, with their serious, eager counterpoint and, in the 41st, their bright, brassy perorations. But that clarinet solo in the finale, over string pizzicato (and the way Lorin Levee played it), is pure Mendelssohn-to-be. If anything, the big ideas in all four movements suggest longer structures than the cautious young composer allots us; I had the feeling of 40 minutes of music crammed into twenty-five.
Sarah Chang played the inevitable Violin Concerto, but played it better than I had expected from the inevitable Sarah Chang of the recent past. Perhaps she has finally outgrown the inevitable Bruch-at-the-Bowl; from her playing this time I heard simple, beautiful phrasing, a sense of real involvement, even humor, in what is, actually, one of music’s most congenial masterpieces.