Friday, April 21, 2006

Also Sprach Prince Igor

By Judith

Alexander Borodin was born in St. Petersburg and died in St. Petersburg. Russia, that is. So why doesn’t the Overture to Prince Igor sound more “Russian”? It’s lush and melodic, but there’s always something special about Russian music, something cold and lonely, like so much of the landscape. The Overture was more sunny, as though it could have been French or Italian. Perhaps that was Napoleon’s contribution. At any rate by the time the Polovtsian Dances were played, we knew that it was Russian, with an Asian influence from the Tartars (the Polovtsians).

This performance, however, was much different from any I’d heard before, with or without chorus. The conductor chose to take it at a ponderous pace, heavy and club-footed, when the dances should have been much lighter. This is the lovely melody made popular as Stranger in Paradise. It should sparkle and float as the women’s voices (or violins in this case) soar above the orchestra. The second dance is for men, but it still should have vitality. These men sounded as though they were dancing in molasses. The orchestra was just not quite in synch.

Making his debut with the Minnesota Orchestra with this series of concerts was conductor Roberto Minczuk. Born in Brazil, he was later a protégé of Kurt Masur, which explains a lot about the Polovtsian Dances. Masur has always been a bit ham-fisted for my taste.

Introduced by the composer Kevin Puts, the second part of the first half of the concert was the world premier of a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, Sinfonia concertante for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Violin, Cello and Orchestra. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am not a big fan of contemporary music. So much of it is like someone all dressed up and not being sure where to go. For example, the vision that springs to mind whenever I hear a piece by John Adams is a gerbil in an exercise wheel. He has a lot of energy and does his best to hit the ground running, but he never goes anywhere. The gerbil, I mean. Well, Adams too. So too this piece by Puts. I’ve heard worse certainly (the aforementioned Adams, for one), but this sinfonia had some potential, especially in the second movement, con moto; quasi Barocco.

Written in a style that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, Puts put his own spin on the sinfonia concertante. An admirer of Mozart, Puts was taken with the way Mozart’s compositions “arrived…at a kind of music that simply feels perfect.” There was melody here and movement; although it was never quite pulled together. Too much of it seemed unfocused and diffuse. This composition, unfortunately, did not feel perfect.

The highlight of the evening was a performance of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem written in 1896, five years after Nietzsche had published his piece which brought us his theory of the Ubermensch. While the first part of the piece was immortalized by Stanley Kubrick when he chose the theme for his film 2001, the rest of the work is not often heard. Too bad.

The piece moves from the familiar 3-note theme to a vision of music to come in the 20th century. In a bold move, it then harkens back to the Vienna of Strauss’ relative Johann, the Waltz King. The three notes recur throughout the piece, re-introducing the theme of Nature. Other Strauss characters make an appearance too, with Till Eulenspiegel popping up amid the strings. During the waltz section we see the future Marschallin float across the stage, although she wouldn’t make her real debut until 1911.

Each section of the orchestra is featured and each section was up to the challenge this evening. A few years ago I might have cringed at the thought of listening to the horn section take the lead. No longer. The brass is as solid and true as one could hope for. The cellos were rich-sounding and the violins soared in Das Tanzlied.

Strauss is being featured quite heavily this spring at the orchestra and it will be interesting to hear pieces from all periods of his long career. No doubt that the orchestra is up to all of it, although I think they can be better served by next week’s conductor Jacob Kreizberg.

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