Friday, November 16, 2018

Bates channels Borges, DiDonato sings of the sea

by Linda Holt

Is Mason Bates the man who can save serious (aka “classical”) music? And can serious music be fun?

The answer to both questions may be yes to judge by recent performances of the young American composer’s work by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The orchestra brought Bates’s lively score, Alternative Energy, to life last year, with the composer as performer (see review by Linda Holt April 17, 2017, at  

On Nov. 9, 2018, Bates was in the audience, rather than on the stage, for a performance of Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, his tribute to the magic realism of Jorge Luis Borges. The concert was held in Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., and later repeated in New York City. 

The 11-movement suite gains its inspiration from Borges’s 1957 collection of more than a hundred imaginary beasts. Performances Nov. 8, 9, and 10 are the work’s Philadelphia premier.

Everything about this work is fresh and exciting, starting like a pop of champagne with a sparkling flute (Patrick Williams) and the chatter of unconventional percussion instruments. Something lively is always happening throughout the 30 continuous minutes of this work, its movements named for imaginary creatures such as the Gryphon, Zaratan, and Madrugada.

Bates takes a playful, but democratic approach to highlighting the gifts of the orchestra’s musicians. Instead of always tapping the orchestra’s excellent concertmaster, David Kim, for every violin solo, Bates appears to have chosen violinists at random throughout the orchestra to do the honors. In addition, there is a section in which two solo violinists play off-stage (Julia Li from the first violin section was offstage on the violin side while Amy Oshiro of the second violin section played offstage on the bass side, both deserving to be heard more often in solo capacity), causing audience members to crane their necks to see the source of these disembodied melodies. 

The work captures and engages the listener’s attention throughout with its variety and creative use of instrumentation, such as the silvery Flex-A-Tone, a unique instrument that creates a wave of eerie, saw-like sounds through varied pitches. Yet, traditional classical instruments also were showcased. The light-hearted virtuosity of clarinetists Ricardo Morales and Sam Caviezel in the “Nymphs” section was a delight to hear, while the shimmering tone painting in “Midnight,” with the string section rising and falling like a single glissando, created a mood far distant from the world of tam-tams, ratchets, and hi-hats in other parts of the score. 

The work ended by deliberately collapsing in on itself. Great blocks of sound, chiseled with grinding discords, crashed into an exciting conclusion begging for the inevitable explosion of applause.

My only complaint was the difficulty in figuring out which section was playing at any given moment. Perhaps overhead titles, as used in opera performances, or a full-page in the Playbill, with the movement names in bold, and the approximate times for each, could serve as a real-time guide to this captivating zoological romp.

Sounds of the sea

Joyce DiDonato, one of the most celebrated mezzo-sopranos of our time, appeared after intermission in a performance of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and the Sea). The singer wore a strapless teal gown, all a-glitter, which, with her commanding stage presence, gave her the aura of an aquatic goddess or mermaid.

Consisting of two poems for mezzo and orchestra separated by an interlude, Chausson’s work is a midpoint between stormy European tributes to love and the sea. Composed in 1893, it falls between Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859), which it is often compared to, and Debussy’s La Mer (1905), which the orchestra played Oct. 12. My ears are still pleasurably ringing from a performance of Tristan I attended this September with Philippe Jordan conducting the National Opera of Paris and Martina Serafin as Isolde. 

Mason Bates, composer (Photo by Ryan Schude).

Although these other musical depictions of tempestuous seas were remarkable in their own ways, Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation brought out a unique depth of turbulence within the orchestra. This emotional depth and sweeping vision required a singer of tremendous self-confidence, tenacity, and control to rise and fall with the waves of passion, and DiDonato brought these qualities in abundance. If there was one word I could use to describe her performance, it would be “conviction.” Without it, the heart-felt lyrics of Maurice Bouchor would fall flat as a sand dollar. The work contained many instrumental delights, including some incandescent moments by cellist Priscilla Lee.

The work opens with the poem, “Water Flower,” a tender song of loveliness and loss, and after an orchestral interlude, concludes with the mournful “The Death of Love.” DiDonato’s beautiful voice caressed the French text, proving she is not only a shining light on the great opera stages of the world, but an insightful artist even alone, stationary, and virtually immobile.

The concert opened with a lovely rendition of Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, emphasizing some of its whisper-soft passages, and concluded with Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, four impressions of flowing water. Philippe Tondre performed brilliantly as guest principal oboe throughout the program, and other memorable soloists, too numerous to mention here, contributed substantively to a satisfying concert with an aquatic theme.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The future of music

(This review appeared in the Broad Street Review on June 4, 2018. To see all my reviews, go to and search <Linda Holt>)

I was not prepared for Studio Dan’s Inventive Mothers: A Tribute to Frank Zappa (June 2 and 3, 2018). Staged in a dark corner of the Kimmel Center’s basement, the show, part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, promised a walk down memory lane honoring that bad boy of the 1970s, Frank Zappa. ​

Imagine my astonishment when from a low, Wagnerian grumble, the ensemble of 13 youngish musicians from Vienna, Austria, not only recapped some of the West's greatest sounds from the last century but pioneered a new music binding jazz, rock, classical, improv, and pop.

It was original music-making fused with influences from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ellington, John Adams, and Jimi Hendrix, interpreted by Dan Riegler’s ingenious arrangements of Zappa melodies, and several startling works by Studio Dan members. Commentators have lamented the uneasy couplings of these disparate influences, and suddenly here it is: the future of music, in the basement of a traditional concert hall.

Getting in the groove

Riegler assembled, coached, supported, and inspired a screamingly talented ensemble of musicians. The 14-member group, all virtuoso soloists, formed in Vienna 13 years ago. Together they reclaim the cheek and wit, of Zappa’s catalog, and some damn good tunes.

But Studio Dan (a pun on the title of Zappa’s album, Studio Tan) is also much more. The musicians have an infectious energy. Once they connected and got into the groove, there was no stopping them.

In defiance of expectations, Riegler presented the image of a classical conductor: self-assured, in a conservative grey suit, carefully following the scores on his music stand. Given the program’s rhythmic excitement, he had a few cool moves that wouldn’t be seen upstairs when the symphony’s in town.

Yet, many times in each selection, he stood back and let these sublimely talented artists display the full range of their improvisational and technical skills. Each musician was given at least one solo opportunity, with several duets and other groupings.

While all were remarkable, special note must be made of the duet featuring percussionists Hubert Bründlmayer (drums) and Raphael Meinhart (everything else), creating dust devils of sound. The decibel level and small venue, filled with a spellbound audience of mostly 50-somethings, intensified a delightful display of passion and virtuosity.

I was tremendously impressed by Clemens Salesny on sax and clarinets, but especially in his fluid, soulful bass-clarinet solos. And all was not blistering volume and speed: My eyes misted over as Michael Tiefenbacher (piano) and Bernd Satzinger (double bass) improvised a tender jazz duet.

Shining in the string section were Sophia Goidinger-Koch, violin; Magdalena Zenz, viola, memorable in a duet with soprano sax; and Maiken Beer, cello.

Fan favorites

Unfortunately, the program did not name the selections, although Riegler identified each work in his friendly chatter between numbers. Some selections included or alluded to Zappa tunes, such as “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” "Be-Bop Tango,” “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” “G-Spot Tornado” (distinguished by its musical logic and crazed, manic drive), and “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque,” which got a roar from fans when announced. The program closed with the ever-popular “Peaches en Regalia.”

Riegler composed the opening salvo, while bassoonist Christof Dienz composed two interludes of striking originality and lyricism. One of Dienz’s pieces contained a mesmerizing effect demonstrating just how in control these musicians are. It included single staccato chords with unusually long rests between them, articulated by five or six instruments on different parts of the stage, a daunting challenge.

“Improvised Concerto for Bicycle, Prerecorded Tape and Instrumental Ensemble” (1963), offered a tribute to Zappa’s debut on the Steve Allen Show. This included sounds from a bicycle’s spinning wheels and pedals, tapping on the downtube, scraping the whirling spokes with a stick, all while a taped voice droned “Mary had a little lamb.” The piece was worth a few minutes but was not as engaging as the rest of the program, so full of wit, ferocity, and splendor.

My only other criticism was the lack of a playlist. The one-page sheet about Studio Dan, distributed at the beginning of the concert, contained a long quote by Zappa, ending with the words, “Music is THE BEST.”

This is clearly the collective opinion of Studio Dan, and we are the happy beneficiaries of their philosophy.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Menace and charm in Aa's Violin Concerto

This review appeared in the Broad Street Review the week of March 11, 2018: 

Here’s one way to describe Michel van der Aa's Violin Concerto, which received its North American premiere March 8 through 10, 2018: utterly captivating. Violinist Janine Jansen joined Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of a thought-provoking work that’s breathtaking in scope and enjoyable on every level.

In many ways, the work has a familiar, almost conventional charm. Its 25 minutes are evenly divided among three movements, which follow the fast-slow-fast pattern with which concertgoers are familiar. It is written in standard notation, with a bit of key signature (3/4) right at the beginning, but soon veers off, as though the notes become birds and fly off the page, taking us into a journey of unexpected delights.

"Nurture and menace"
In the first few bars, the solo violin languidly climbs from a low whisper to a stratospheric suggestion of yearning, then, joined by the orchestra, spins a fascinating sound saga. The piece contains a full workout for the orchestra, including a trio in the first movement with Jansen, concertmaster David Kim, and principal cellist Priscilla Lee.

One of the concerto’s most fascinating elements is the way the enlarged percussion section is spread across Verizon Hall’s stage. In one sense, the percussion players coddled the strings and brass in a protective shell. But were they also looming behind the orchestra, ready to snap, like a Venus flytrap? That level of nurture and menace was retained throughout.

Just hearing the bass drum thundering from stage left was a memorable experience. And what a variety of percussion instruments, more like the contents of my garage than a concert stage: egg shaker, sandpaper and wooden surface, washboard, whip, and the enticing “sizzle cymbal.”

The percussive section plays such a pivotal role in this concerto, clicking and clacking like R2D2. It’s almost as though there are two orchestras, sometimes at play, other times at war, the clarion tone of Jansen’s Stradivarius stitching them together with impeccable grace.
Jansen is a wizard in her own right, expressing a deeply felt response to this music: sometimes lyrical, but more often agitated and determined. Her technical mastery was unfailingly evident and, if this concerto traced a kind of battle among sometimes friendly but often confrontational forces, she emerged the clear winner.

Nézet-Séguin was more reserved than usual, focused entirely on the complicated task of both leading and working in sync with the soloist, for whom this concerto was written (van der Aa has said that he composed the work with Jansen, rather than any particular instrument, in mind). Jansen and Nézet-Séguin were a perfect balance of partners, a yin-yang symmetry bringing out the textures, tensions, and drive of a work that promises to become a permanent part of the concert repertoire.

A Philadelphia favorite

The second part of the program brought an entirely different tone. Since the Stokowski years, the orchestra has been associated with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. It’s the epitome of the Romantic symphony, even if it premiered in 1908, the dawn of the modern era.

If Nézet-Séguin was reserved in the van der Aa, he held nothing back in the Rachmaninoff, performing a graceful conductor’s ballet on the podium like a taiji master. A good thing, too, because he led the players through a thoroughly satisfying rendition of this familiar masterpiece.

For my taste, this rendition was a little too assertive (my idea of Rachmaninoff is compatible with sinking into piles of down comforters with a plate of cream-filled chocolates), but great music is amenable to many interpretations. Nézet-Séguin pulled out the stops, with gushing melodies and spirited bursts of determination. This is a classic reading which brings out the strength and global vision of its composer, ending with a shout of exultation and artistic triumph.

The concert started with remarks by the conductor, noting that the performance was being recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. With a smile, he very diplomatically requested that members of the audience take extra care in the cultivation of silence during the performance. Unfortunately, that seems to be Philadelphian for “cough more often and louder than usual"!

If you missed the concert and were not able to attend a performance at Carnegie Hall on March 13, you may search for van der Aa’s work on YouTube. The Philadelphia concert was held in Verizon Hall.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Intriguing ambiguity in Leningrad Symphony; plus, insightful Bell

Bell is one of the most popular classical musicians of our time, and for good reason. Although, incredibly, he is 50, the Indiana-born violinist still has the kind of youthful charisma that lights up the hall as he walks onstage.

There is a little bit of the punk about him, too, a tiny chip on his shoulder he dares you to push off. This delightful blend of mixed messages filters through a lifetime of training and his own innate understanding of the music he plays. It’s an unbeatable combination.
This combination flamed during Friday’s matinee as Bell went far beyond the superficial virtuosic snares of this lush concerto. He brought a single voice of cohesion, intense feeling, and unified expression to one of the most engaging works of the Romantic repertoire.
The soloist and orchestra played as true partners, one never dominating the other, as Nézet-Séguin balanced the musicians to support and converse with Bell. Off to a relaxed start, the orchestra picked up fervor by the second half of the first movement, without detracting from the heartfelt melodies flowing from the soloist's Stradivarius.

Bell was almost unsurpassable in the bright upper register of his instrument, less so with the lower tones of the concerto’s early sections. This was more than rectified in the second and third movements with some lovely segues into the violin’s darker, more mysterious side. He unveiled the gamut of human feeling hidden in this concerto, with gypsy-like airs, lilting rhythms, and a reflective lyricism that uncovered real depths below a sparkling surface.

Hard work, harder subject

After intermission, Nézet-Séguin led a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the “Leningrad.” I wonder if we would listen differently to this at-once disturbing and enlightening work were it called the “St. Petersburg.” After all, the city is now associated with aesthetics and charm.

Of course, the city where Shostakovich lived, studied, and composed was renamed Leningrad in honor of the Communist icon when this work was composed in 1941. The story of the symphony’s composition is almost as riveting as the work itself. Shostakovich kept composing even as Hitler’s troops invaded his city, forcing him to relocate in musical midstream.

What a taxing symphony to conduct! It is not only an hour and 15 minutes long, but requires continuous vigilance and meticulous timing to bring out colors and dynamic variety. With its snare drums and muted trumpets, the work could easily sound sinisterly jocular, like a Stravinsky circus, or even cheesy, with the heavy-handed march of boots on the ground.
It’s also cloaked in extra-musical ambiguity, since Shostakovich agreed to undertake this project about an invasion of Leningrad well before the actual 1941 Nazi invasion. Many scholars today believe the brutal totalitarian Communist Party regime is actually under attack in the piece. Perhaps oppression in general provides the backstory for this thought-provoking work.

Question everything

Despite its grim theme, the symphony is shot through with energy, from the first movement’s relentless development of its Bolero-like invasion theme, to its stirring finale with double cymbals and brass choir. In between, a funerary section of the first movement recalls Beethoven’s Eroica (as does the four-note victory motif from Beethoven’s Fifth, quoted near the end), while memorable hymn-like fragments whisper a gentle call for healing and peace.
The orchestra and Nézet-Séguin, always a lively figure on the podium, never flagged in this performance, capturing the variety of Shostakovich’s ideas as well as the unity of his artistic vision. Does the requiem commemorate the half-million Soviet civilians who died at the hands of the Nazis, or is it, archetypically, the death of fascism? Is the victory that some suppose is commemorated in the final movement even possible?

We may never know the answers to these questions, and even more important questions are yet to be asked. Like all great artists, Shostakovich opens the door to speculation and lets us be the judge. (Photo of Joshua Bell courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Set your clocks: Philadelphia Orchestra to spring into Europe and Israel this year

The Philadelphia Orchestra has announced a new partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia this spring to bring a uniquely American, specifically Philadelphian musical sound to people in parts of the world who may have lost confidence in the West, or at least lost touch. 

The orchestra will tour six cities in Europe and three in Israel, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary as a nation this year. The tour will take place from May 24 through June 5, with concerts in Israel scheduled June 3 through 5.

This would make the Philadelphians the only major American symphony orchestra to travel to Israel during this anniversary year and only the third ever to visit the country (the last time an American orchestra visited Israel was in 1996). Through the language of music, the orchestra and Federation believe, we can share our deepest feelings and ideas that transcend national boundaries.

The tour in Israel is especially noteworthy given that some artists and organizations are boycotting Israel over policy issues. In this writer’s opinion, the arts are forces for healing and communication, and should not be pawns in international politics. We need cultural exchange more today than perhaps at any time in history.

Tours are nothing new for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director since 2012, noted that one of the attractions that originally drew him to the orchestra was its tradition of touring in other parts of the world. In recent years, the musicians have toured and been involved in programs in China, Europe, and even Mongolia.

For this tour, the orchestra will be joined by Helene Grimaud and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (not in the same program, of course) in Brahms' First Piano Concerto and Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, respectively. Other works will include compositions by Schumann, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wayne Oquin's Resilience, for organ and orchestra featuring organist Paul Jacobs. (See reviews in the Broad Street Review: and search for Oquin ).

I found it particularly intriguing that the tour will include not only traditional venues such as the Viennese Musikverein (think New Year’s Eve concert broadcast on PBS), but also a couple of the most talked-about new concert halls on the planet. Some critics may lament that classical music is dead, but classical-music architecture is on a screaming roll. This has been the case since the Sydney Opera House replaced the kangaroo as the unofficial symbol of Australia.

At the tour announcement, the music director called the Philharmonie of Paris the “the best new hall in Europe.” The hall was created by architect Jean Nouvel with the greatest attention to sound and acoustics. The conductor also praised the architecture of the close-to-a–billion-dollar Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, describing its acoustics as “very interesting.” 

The Federation and orchestra have some special activities planned in Israel, including a patron tour that will extend a few extra days past the musical part of the agenda. This will include an exploration of Israel cuisine led by Michael Solomonov, the Israel-born chef known for Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant. 

The tour has been meticulously planned, every detail addressed in the press event at the Kimmel Center, which opened with short musical selections played by orchestra musicians Nitzan Haroz, principal trombone, and Ohad Bar-David, cellist. An array of luminaries spoke briefly but eloquently in support of the project. 

I couldn’t help but hope that, in the words of Steve Allen, “This could be the start of something big.” The arts in general, but music in particular represents the best of what people are capable of. Why not cultivate more of these partnerships, is it so hard to do? Don’t tell me there’s no audience for great music. Everyone is the audience, here in Philadelphia and out there, beyond the sea. 

No matter what kind of music you cherish, it’s hardwired into our hearts and brains, and we communicate best with people from other countries when we share our music as well as material exports and open our doors to cultural ambassadors from other lands. The human organism itself is a symphony, as Jefferson University learned as it created a music-plus-medicine curriculum mentioned at the tour announcement. Music is medicine, and partnerships between leading community organizations and our orchestras (and we have several) will do more to bring people together than all the billion-dollar bomb-making paraphernalia we can list in our export catalog. 

The 2018 Philadelphia Orchestra tour is more than a trip abroad. In the words of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it has the potential of being “a kiss for all the world,” and a spark for warmer international relationships in the years ahead.

Photo of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie compliments of USA Today.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Mirga and Menahem tackle Mozart and Mahler

February 11, 2018,   Philadelphia, Pa., USA

I almost wished I were a photojournalist this weekend to capture this image: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, 31, a bright young star in the conducting universe, accompanying legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, 94, onto Verizon Hall’s stage to join the Philadelphia Orchestra in concert February 9, 2018.

The energetic young woman wore black pants and a short-sleeved orange top, her dark blonde hair loose and free as she walked behind the diminutive pianist. He wore conservative attire, assisted by a cane and an aide. But both beamed smiles of happiness, confidence, and mutual respect. Mirga held a hand mic as Menahem reminisced to the Kimmel center audience about debuting with the orchestra and Stokowski 70 years ago.

This weekend’s performances represented Gražinytė-Tyla’s own debut with the Philadelphians, and it was memorable. Now the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony (formerly led by Sir Simon Rattle), Gražinytė-Tyla led a graceful rendition of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto followed by an electrifying reading of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. In the latter, the orchestra proved conclusively that it can soar outside the familiar “Philadelphia sound” (heavy on the strings) and bring us interpretations and experiences filled with grit and glory.

Can't stop, won't stop

Pressler is an artist lionized throughout his lengthy career as a concert soloist and co-founder of the celebrated Beaux Arts Trio. He did not have a “last tour” when he turned 70, the age at which many pop stars announce their retirement. Instead, he kept practicing and performing, like a kid embarking on a great, new adventure.

His performance of the difficult Mozart concerto was enchanting on several levels. He has perfected the ability to convey the soul of the music with technical wizardry. His interpretations are crystalline and heartfelt, using the natural slowing down of the aging process as a part of his presentation.
Gražinytė-Tyla exquisitely controlled the orchestra’s partnership with this venerable pianist, raising the volume here, pulling back there, to let Mozart’s inventive lines shine. The second movement of this concerto holds some of Mozart’s most sublime moments, revealed here in all their tenderness and yearning.

Greeted with shouts of “Bravo,” and a standing ovation, Pressler was up to not one but two encores (Chopin and Debussy), where he proved that energy, talent, and imagination need not be limited by age. I think he would have spent the rest of the afternoon playing for us had he not been escorted off the stage for a final time.

Soaring solo

Mahler’s Fourth is pretty close to being a familiar old warhorse, but I have never heard it played like this. Gražinytė-Tyla pored over the score in a unique way, extracting sections, lines, solo passages in her imagination, and then conveying her discoveries to and through the orchestra. Some may argue that her approach compartmentalizes sections of each movement; she crisply delineates where others blur the lines separating musical ideas. There is certainly room in our listening experiences for both approaches. But Gražinytė-Tyla’s ability to bring out the bright, bold colors of the brass, woodwinds, and percussion, all while cushioned in the strings, was nothing short of dazzling.

In the third movement, an entire musical universe of sound and symphonic effects, emotional eruptions were tempered by the tentative “footsteps” of the pizzicato basses. The conductor seemed to embrace crescendos with her bare arms, pulling them toward herself and beyond, to fill the entire hall with the sound of splendor.

Soprano Janai Brugger joined the orchestra for the final movement. Mahler actually composed this work backwards, beginning in the fourth movement with “The Heavenly Life,” a song that long fascinated him. Its text is by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, the husband and brother, respectively, of the woman some scholars believe to be Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” (Bettina Brentano).

Singing from the back of the orchestra, Brugger projected warmth, spirituality, and perhaps a cloud of foreboding. The orchestra completed this performance with a soaring hymn and a heart-stopping whisper.

Members of the orchestra sometimes present a chamber concert after a performance. For the first time, I stayed after the Friday matinee to hear three woodwind quintet movements by Anton Reicha, composed in 1817 and 1819.

Reicha was a Czech-born theorist and composer who was friends with Beethoven during his Bonn and Vienna years, and later moved to Paris. The quintet included David Cramer, flute; Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, English horn; Samuel Caviezel, clarinet; Angela Anderson Smith, bassoon; and Shelley Showers, French horn. An impressive number of concertgoers stayed for the bonus performance, which was a total delight.

 Photo from

Monday, January 29, 2018

Bronfman reveals hidden depths of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for the Philadelphia Orchestra the weekend of January 24 through 26, 2018, as guest conductor Fabio Luisi presented a program of Haydn, Beethoven, and Wagner in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, Pa.

It was the best when Yefim Bronfman, who often solos with the Philadelphians, presented an inspired reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. This is a profound work which reflects Beethoven’s agony and ecstasy as he raged against the enveloping specter of deafness and envisioned an uncharted path toward greatness. He already had 11 piano sonatas, including the Pathetique, under his belt as he undertook the Third Concerto, and knew and deployed every technique he had developed by that time for enrobing his most passionate feelings in the cloak of reason and artistry.

Bronfman is the perfect pianist to perform Beethoven at this point in the composer’s career. In sync with Luisi’s well-paced tempo, he brought gravitas and command without being domineering. The music seemed to flow from Bronfman’s brain into steady, supple fingertips that released the composer’s complex intentions with ease and regularity.

I have never heard the cadenza rendered more beautifully, with exactly the right mix of virtuosity, intimate reflection, and pyrotechnics. The entire first movement was a tribute to Beethoven and a gift to us, his listeners.

The second movement, while insightful and well performed, was slightly too languid, Beethoven on Valium, if you like. But the work reenergized in the concluding Rondo Allegro-Presto under Bronfman’s touch.

This movement uses one of Beethoven’s signature tricks, storming along in minor, then suddenly shifting gears into major, like sunshine piercing through clouds on a rainy day. Orchestra and soloist revealed the determination and faith that carried the composer through terror and into the realm of hope.

After several curtain calls and a standing ovation, Bronfman played Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 3, perhaps a tad shy of technical perfection in the matinee performance, but crafting an all-enveloping web of beautiful sound nonetheless.

British invasion

The program opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, the “London,” marking the last of three weeks of British-themed concerts. The full orchestra, unlike the smaller ensembles of Haydn’s day, gave a rich, imperious voice to the composer’s final declaration in symphonic form.
This is a work of enticing complexity, laden with lovely tunes, its motives and harmonic variety neatly etched by Luisi’s baton. The former Met conductor makes an appealing presence at the podium, elegant, with precise movements from the arms, shoulders, and expressive hands.

At the third movement, though, the mix of imagination and majesty collapsed with the introduction of a fast, aggressive pace, rendering the themes into an unintelligible jumble. This persisted in the fourth movement, ripping through the familiar melodies so fast they were barely discernible, wrecking for me a performance of a great work started with so much promise.

Love and passion

The program’s final work was Wagner’s voluptuous Prelude and “Liebestod” (“Love-death”) from Tristan and Isolde. Luisi coaxed the first stirrings of yearning from the cellos, and built the piece masterfully as the prelude morphed into a cry of passion intermingled with despair.

Wagner builds layer over layer of melodic line, increasing in dynamic intensity until we wonder which will burst first, the orchestra or listeners’ hearts. The composition moves tentatively forward, as though unsure whether to pounce on the object of desire or to retreat into safety, finally collapsing in surrender, the ultimate Romantic excess.

Well done by Luisi and the orchestra, concluding a spellbinding program of extremes. Even the concert's negative elements offered a stimulating antidote for the mundane and tedious.