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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Carter, Mozart, R. Strauss: Jonathan Biss, Piano, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 1.10.2005 (BH)



Carter: Holiday Overture (1944, rev. 1961)

Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488 (ca. 1784-86)

R. Strauss: Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (1888-89)

R. Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils, from Salome (1905)



Those who still shudder when Elliott Carter’s name is mentioned might investigate his totally approachable and invigorating Holiday Overture, written when the now nonagenarian was a trifling 36 years old.  But this piece is no trifle, despite Aaron Copland’s dismissing it as another one of those “typical, complicated Carter scores.”  Perhaps Copland was a tad envious, since Carter’s piece resembles Copland in its airy strength – as if the latter had penned it himself.  Created for a huge orchestra, heavy on the percussion, the piece speaks in broad swaths of sound – perhaps think Roy Harris, but refracted through Carter’s restless prism.  But unlike Copland (or what most people think is Copland), Carter’s Holiday veers off into ambiguous, layered chords sprinkled with bits of slight atonality.  It wouldn’t be out of place next to Ives’ depictions of holidays, with their clashingly ambiguous emotions.

I last heard Jonathan Biss in Los Angeles, in a lithe Mendelssohn Second Piano Concerto with James Conlon at the helm.  I’m happy to report that Biss’ light, engaging sound was not a fluke, or due to hearing him in the sparkle of Disney Hall.  He is right at home in this repertoire (although I’d love to hear him tackle Prokofiev).  With the orchestra scaled back after the massive Carter, and offering elegant support, Biss had a lot of fun with this beloved concerto.  The highlight was the ghostly Adagio, with some superb assistance from the Philharmonic’s woodwinds.  Tempi overall seemed just right, and Biss used just enough rubato here and there to make the line sing.

The two Strauss blockbusters that fell on the second half are perfectly suited for Maazel’s technical skill.  After a spate of ridiculously excessive coughing during the quiet opening, Tod und Verklärung soared like a huge golden arc crossing the stage, with the first violins feverishly clustered high on the stave.  (Despite his popularity, Richard Strauss rarely means “easy to play.”)  The Philharmonic brass section must have been reveling in this score, and met each burning phrase with rock-steady tone – including some crescendos that were models of finesse.  Overall, Maazel mined the work’s luster, while keeping the tempi from dragging and turning the piece into overheated mush.  This was Strauss as jeweler.

Strauss’ sensational interlude from Salome comes about halfway through the opera, when King Herod perversely asks Salome to perform for him, and equally perversely, she agrees but on one condition: that he grant her whatever wish she desires.  Little does he know that she will coyly ask not for jewelry, designer dresses or an Italian villa, but for a decapitation.  This Dance of the Seven Veils will be remembered for some dazzling instrumental turns, including a perfectly seductive oboe and some heart-pounding timpani emerging from the white-hot instrumental interplay.  As in Tod und Verklärung, the Philharmonic gave this ten-minute barnburner all the colors and sheen that it needed to make its lurid point.  If there were any justice following the prolonged applause, Maazel might have repeated it as an encore.



Bruce Hodges





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