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MacMillan, Prokofiev, Brahms: Midori (violin), New York Philharmonic, Marin Alsop (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 15.10.2005 (BH)



MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Brahms: Symphony No. 1



Before beginning James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (that put him on the compositional map), Marin Alsop turned to the audience to comment on its subject matter: a Scottish woman who was one of thousands suspected of witchcraft between 1560 and 1707.  After confessing to being baptized and raped by the devil, she was tortured, strangled at the stake, and then burned.  Alsop’s wry humor – “Sorry, I know some of you just expected a nice night out, and now this” – helped warm up the crowd in a bit of “Bernstein education mode.”  She and the orchestra demonstrated certain key passages, such as a quiet motif in the strings that represents Gowdie softly crying, and then at the other end of the spectrum, a hymn tune buried in the orchestra at full throttle, with cacophony that would do Charles Ives proud.  After a quiet opening, Macmillan gradually increases the decibel level, ever more piercing, depicting the horrible pain inflicted on Gowdie, culminating in a violent middle section filled with huge orchestral outbursts, and then recedes, perhaps accompanying Gowdie’s ascent into a calmer plane as she finds some peace in death.  It is easy to see why this work got MacMillan noticed: although contemporary, it is written in an idiom that is occasionally more tonal than not (as with say, Arvo Pärt), with a keen attention to orchestral color.  I’m a great admirer of MacMillan’s work, having heard his impressive Third Symphony (“Silence”) and sonically unhinged A Scotch Bestiary last season, and although I don’t think Gowdie is quite in the same league, as an earlier work it is valuable for its insight into his growth.

The Prokofiev was frustrating.  The worries began when Midori, looking terrific in a sleek dress with a flower and leaf motif, came out and retuned before both the first and second movements.  I wonder if the excess humidity had anything to do with it, since this evening was the first dry one in nine days, after New York City had experienced a week-and-a-half of record rainfall, and moisture can wreak havoc with stringed instruments.  Whatever the case, her intonation seemed not at its best, and made the piece sound more concerned with texture than pitch, as if it were forged partially from Ligeti’s tone clusters.  Further, she and Alsop could not agree on an approach to the work’s structure.  (Rather than a traditional fast-slow-fast scheme with a brilliant finale, Prokofiev places the fireworks in the middle – a tingling Scherzo: Vivacissimo – with more reflective movements on either side.)  There seemed to be little connection between them – those small gestures and asides signaling that a conductor and soloist are communicating and in synch with the thrust of the musical argument.  Alsop never seemed to find the right momentum here, although the orchestra was producing gorgeous sounds throughout.  But I was never convinced that she really is persuaded by the work itself.


Alsop has been making a lot of press lately, including her new recording of the Brahms Symphony No. 2 for Naxos, which I have yet to explore.  I didn’t quite know what to make of this reading, although it had many fine moments, and was firmly anchored, again, by some deliciously warm and precise playing from the Philharmonic.  The orchestra’s superb timpanist made the most of the desolate opening, and the horns, crucial here, were as silken and mysterious as one could ask for.  Carter Brey’s cello colleagues sang like angels.  As far as sheer sound goes, the orchestra continued its continuing demonstration that it is one of the world’s great ensembles.  What was missing was that last element of Brahmsian magic – that quality of darkness and light, of ebb, flow and pulse that is so wondrous with this composer.  Too often the phrasing seemed halting, just a bit hesitant, with no compensatory virtues such as greater resonance or clarity.  It wasn’t “bad,” just a bit ordinary, and although this is a familiar work it is far from ordinary.

Alsop was memorable in the Philharmonic’s Candide a few seasons back, and I have much enjoyed her Samuel Barber recordings, a fine series (also on Naxos).  This evening, however, did not showcase her at her best.  I hope all the furor over her new appointment in Baltimore has died down and that all parties can focus on what is important: making great music come to life.  I look forward to her return when perhaps a different program will demonstrate her talents more clearly.



Bruce Hodges




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