Friday, December 30, 2011

New York String Orchestra - Arriaga, Bartok & Beethoven - 12/28/11

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Arriaga: Symphony in D Major
Bartok: Divertimento for Strings
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" – André Watts

For my last performance of the year, I could hardly have picked a better one than the New York Strings Orchestra led by Jaime Laredo and featuring André Watts as the soloist at Carnegie Hall last Wednesday. However, truth be told, the main purpose of my attendance was not to support current and past child prodigies, but to enjoy one of my very favorite musical works: Beethoven’s formidable Emperor concerto. Moreover, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings could only appeal to the string lover that I am, and getting a chance to sample Spanish composer Juan Crisostomo Arriaga's œuvre could only be beneficial to my musical education. So that’s how I found myself in a Stern auditorium packed with an eclectic crowd of excited family members and friends of the young performers in the prestigious spotlight as well as, holiday season oblige, hordes of tourists coming from all over the world, probably drawn as much by the prospect of hearing some of the headliners of tomorrow as by the international renown of the historic venue.

An extraordinarily talented young Spanish composer who grew up on Beethoven and Schubert, Arriaga obviously learned to make the most of these influences for his own symphony, which he completed right before his untimely death at the age of twenty. Although he hadn’t had the time to find his own voice yet, his one and only symphony is an appealing recap of the best the late-Classical and early-Romantic styles had to offer, and the youngsters onstage on Wednesday did not waste any time channeling one of their own for an enthusiastic rendition of it.
Another musical giant who got a decidedly early start, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok had a natural knack to neatly blend earthy folk tunes with more traditionally refined music. A powerful combination of both elements, his Divertimento for Strings opens with an irresistible pulse that never officially lets off until the dark Adagio comes around and calms things down. It all eventually ends in a fun, free-spirited polka. However, no matter what its name implies, Bartok’s Divertimento is not just fluffy entertainment but also a serious, intricate musical work, which can be quite challenging for the musicians. The ones at Carnegie Hall did not seem to mind though, and whole-heartedly threw themselves into it with sharp focus and unwavering intensity, assuredly conducted by Jaime Laredo.
Last, but not least, André Watts came for the high point of the evening, Beethoven’s widely popular Concerto No 5. There’s nothing in the Emperor that does not inspire awe and delight: The unusual appearance of the piano with a cadenza, the triumphant complexity of the first movement, the warm delicacy of the Adagio, the boundless energy bursting from the final Rondo. Beethoven’s last concerto is more than familiar territory for André Watts, but he still kept it fresh and engaging. While he strongly held his own against the fiery orchestra, his performance also had an underlying light-heartedness to it. Viscerally virtuosic, yet elegantly playful. The perfect way to end another memorable musical year and to look forward to a brand new one. Happy New Year!

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