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2/18/98ce
–55 West 13th Street, Manhattan, New York, noon on the third of several grey, cloudy rainy days

Last night I heard the New York Philharmonic perform the St. Matthew Passion, by J. S. Bach, under the direction of Kurt Masur at Avery Fisher Hall (formerly Philharmonic Hall) at Lincoln Center.

The space is considerably less well designed than the Opera Hall in the same Center.  I have not yet visited the Alice Tully Hall space which completes the three.

Crossing the plaza and passing the small fountain as you approach the high-ceilinged, great glass front of the Metropolitan Opera House, two very large canvasses painted by Marc Chagall are visible from all directions.  They are something like 50 feet high and 30 feet wide.  The main stairway of the Opera House passes between the two pieces.  The Avery Fisher Hall is the auditorium to the right when facing the Opera House.  It is lower and more box-like, though it too has a tall, glass-fronted facade.

The Philharmonic Hall is long and rectangular.  The seats are arranged in horizontal rows forming a long rectangle from the stage back to the main doors on the floor of the auditorium.  Above these seats there are four tiers of balcony seats.  The box seats on the side are smaller and a little cramped.  They provide only an angled view of the stage and so one must continually turn one’s head to see the orchestra, the balcony seats in the rear of the auditorium are maybe 100 yards from the stage, but the line of sight is good and straight on from any of the seats in the back of the Hall.

Last night’s performance marked the second time I have heard the St. Matthew Passion by Bach.  I checked it out in San Francisco in 1997ce (see previous material).  This time, the stage set was completely different and the orchestration was somewhat changed as well.

The choir consisted of Thomanerchor Liepzig (The choir of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig) that Bach himself led, several hundred years ago.  They were perhaps 90 strong and provided the choir solo voices for the Apostle Peter and other parts from within their number.  They were split and arranged on benches at stage front left and front right, featured prominently.  The orchestration consisted of a small chamber group surrounding the conductor and a harmonium.  The harmonium was played by the director of the boy’s choir.  The chamber group was comprised of a cellist, bassist, first and second violins, and reeds.  On a platform behind the group were the six soloists.  The secondary strings and flutes and reeds were placed in the rear of the stage behind the soloists and Mr. Masur stood on a raised platform just to the right of the harmonium.

The performance was microphoned and amplified but the volume was far too low to enjoy complex changes in dynamics.  The sound in the corner seats in the rear boxes where we were (went with D.) was good but could have been louder and with more dynamic variance.  The seats were angled hard and somewhat cramped so we had to turn our heads to face the stage stereophonically.

The New York Times ran a review of the performance from the weekend past on the morning I saw the show (cf.: NYT, FEB 17, The Arts, p.4, aside: Siva Vaidyanthan on the cover for an unrelated story regarding a lost scrap of paper written upon by Mark Twain). The article said the work was among Masur’s first with the Philharmonic and suggested the changes and alterations (i.e. using St. Thomas Church choir from Liepzig) were Masur’s continuing efforts to come to know the music of Bach.

The performance was at a quick tempo, not workman-like, but regular. There were some lovely voices in the context of the piece, including the mezzo-soprano whose work was so beautiful.  The tenor who handled the part of the Evangelist may have been a little tired from a weekend’s worth of performance.  He was good, though.

The quality of live music performance in New York City is generally extremely high. Everywhere I go I hear bold, confident, passionate performances.  The players are eager and well-prepared.  In New York, the level of energy and play and quality of sound by any given performer is so much More More More than anywhere else I have been in the US.  There is little doubt or wavering.  The performers have in the context of their relationship to the venue and the audience, a certain confidence that frees them to try to be their best.  Or maybe they are scared witless and just playing their asses off so they can “make it in New York.” But it doesn’t “fee’” like the latter.  Rather it is just the general level of play, that the town attracts the nation’s best.  That is how it feels to me so far. (so why is the coffee so bad?)

The performance had some interesting moments:  the second mezzo-soprano solo in the second part, is predecessed and accompanied by an instrumental sectional.  There is a relationship here between the melody here and the melody of one of the six Violin Concerti for Violin and harpsichord.  The theme is augmented and then toyed with slightly, but check it out.

The section I awaited, had remembered from the last performance, was the simple harmony (or is it even unison?) calling out of the name of Barrabas.  It lacked the impact it had in SF.  There, the choir erupted in the name of Barrabas so loudly and strongly, one could hear the maddening crowd calling the name.  Here the section passed relatively quickly.  The tempo was speeded up and even-handed without such lingering drama.  Perhaps that is an aspect of performance here or by Masur.

He was beautiful to watch.  Had a relationship with the music as he conducted.  His body language, his expressiveness coaxed, pushed and pulled on the sound.  It was nice.  Masur’s an older man, balding (big centered patch over grey, evenly-cut hair all around), with a big frame.  maybe 6’2” or 3” tall.

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