Thursday, August 25, 2011

Naumburg Orchestral Concerts - Schubert & Liszt - 08/22/11

Conductor: Eric Jacobsen
Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde, D. 644
Liszt: "Am Grabe Richard Wagners", S. 135
Schubert (arr. Liova): "Gretchen am Spinnrade", Op. 2, D. 118
Schubert (arr. Jacobsen): "Des Baches Wiegenlied" from Die Schöne Müllerin
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "From the Cradle to the Grave", Symphonic Poem No 13
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "Freudvoll und Leidvoll"
Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "Hungarian Rhapsody No 2"

As my first summer in New York is slowly coming to an end, I am pleased to say that there is (musical) life beyond the traditional Mostly Mozart Festival and other musical celebrations taking place in bucolic locales out of town. I was actually delighted to discover a musical treasure right in my own bucolic backyard that is Central Park as I was exploring it in search of some much needed coolness one steamy Saturday afternoon. That’s when I came across violinist Susan Keser, who routinely delights a typically captive audience at the southern end of The Mall with a complete smorgasbord of infectious tunes. As she became a regular fixture on my weekend schedule, I got to enjoy her wide répertoire, from Paganini’s melodic pyrotechnics to Bach’s understated elegance, from Pachelbel’s popular Canon to Puccini’s operatic gems "O mio babbino caro" and "Nessun dorma". Even the random but invariably chatty tourists, who never fail to come sit right next to me, haven’t managed to spoil that weekly treat.
But that is not all. Although the New York Philharmonic has not showed up this year, the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the US, are alive and well and playing in the park. That's how on Monday The Knights, the young, fast-rising orchestra that seems to be everywhere, including TV, these days bracingly took the historic bandshell stage. They were scheduled to wrap up the season with a program featuring works by Franz Schubert as well as his No 1 fan, Franz Liszt, and it looked that literally everybody and their dogs had decided to come enjoy a musical summer evening in the park.

The performance started with the stirring notes of Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde, which assertively opened a steady flow of Romantic élans and warm feelings. This was a truly fine work to get the audience in the mood and, by the same token, display the orchestra’s assured musicianship.
The next four short pieces, in most cases arranged to accommodate the large ensemble on the stage, were enthusiastically brought to life by the players, subtle nuances and all. Never mind the amplified sound, the accompanying birds, the restless kids and the occasional airplane, the two Franz got a chance to have their voices heard through those vibrant little vignettes that were boldly filling up the cool air as the sky was gradually darkening.
But it is the second half of the program that featured the two highlights of the evening. After a charming “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” by Liszt, Schubert’s Symphony No 8 appeared as the plat de résistance. I have to say that I much prefer Schubert’s chamber music to his other works, but hearing the Unfinished live under the stars was definitely an exciting experience. The strings, in particular, had some wonderful take-no-prisoners moments. Maestro Jacobsen, however, made sure to keep everybody in line and energetically brought it all home.
And to conclude this lovely evening with beautiful fireworks, The Knights played their own compelling arrangement of Liszt’s rightfully ubiquitous “Hungarian Rhapsody No 2”. Achieving the perfect balance between seductive, languorous rhythms and zestful, exhilarating folk tunes, the orchestra easily moved from drama to light-heartedness with joyful abandon. There was no encore after that, but really, none was needed.

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