The Palm Beach Symphony’s last concert this season April 10 suffered from a much-changed program, keeping the group’s largest public ever of 1,200 souls guessing.
New insert programs lay in piles undistributed by the volunteer ushers at the Kravis Center. Lola Astanova, the highly regarded Russian-American pianist, was scheduled to play three solo pieces after her Mozart concerto, but these were dropped.
Instead she chose to bring on an unnamed electric guitarist, an artistic lapse on her part, who mugged his way through her rock arrangement of Paganini-Liszt’s La Campanella; guitarist and La Campanella were not mentioned in the new program either. She was late for her second entrance and half the audience had left for intermission. The surprise was a bust.
The unscheduled Midsummer Night’s Dream overture of Mendelssohn began the program. It is pleasant to have an overture to start a concert; it gives conductor and orchestra a chance to warm up. Mendelssohn wrote this incidental music when he was 16.
Astanova, in a shimmering red satin dress, appeared for the first time to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 (in D minor, K. 466), written in 1785. Mozart’s father Leopold was visiting him and his wife in Vienna at the time, and he complained of their hectic lifestyle, saying there wasn’t time to play through the finale before the concert because his son had not finished copying the orchestral parts. And that Mozart Junior’s fortepiano had been in and out of the house a dozen times so he could play at the theater or in a private house.
I believe this concerto reflects the chaos the father spoke of. It lacks the luster and sparkle of his remaining concertos. The soloist has few chances to shine; the cadenzas have little to recommend them, or so it seemed from Astanova’s interpretation.
The Allegro has a dark opening. First the orchestra lays out the tune and the soloist repeats it in her introduction, playing with silken smoothness and a light touch. The second movement has the pianist setting the pace: the melody to be copied by the orchestra. Astanova’s left-handed runs were strong, distinctive and quite marvelous. Conductor Ramon Tebar, on top of things with clear signals and a fine collaboration with the soloist, kept the recapitulation moving along nicely.
The last movement (Allegro assai) lets the pianist shine to a certain extent, with lightning runs up and down the keyboard and lovely octave jumps that Astanova completed with ease. There is a calmness to this piece; maybe that reflects father Leopold’s subtle interference in his son’s endeavors. It’s nothing to write home about and I felt Astanova’s overall playing reflected this to some extent. The Russian repertory suits her much more comfortably.
Gustav Mahler’s overly long Symphony No. 5 (in C sharp-minor) came after intermission. It has five movements and lasts for an hour and 10 minutes. Beginning this symphony after a near-death experience of intestinal hemorrhaging in the summer of 1901, he returned to it a year later. In the interim, in 1902, he met and married Alma Schindler, a clever, talented musician who gave birth to their first child the same year. The program notes say “he tinkered with the symphony’s orchestration until the premiere performance, which he conducted in October of 1904’’ in Cologne, Germany.
Mahler had his detractors as conductor and composer. My observation about his music would be that Mahler seems to find difficulty in resolving each movement’s ending, meandering toward quick, stunning closes after laborious, painstaking attempts. His music has patches of glorious and brilliant stirring orchestrations. His repeats are endless. But his moving passages have solemn beauty.
In the first two movements, Tebar showed amazing energy as he kept this widely varied, sometimes chaotic music under control. The famous Adagietto fourth movement, a love letter to his newlywed wife, is for strings and harp only: they played this sensuous music exquisitely and lovingly. Indeed, every note seemed to flow from Tebar’s sensitive baton, as if drawing the melodies out of thin air. Lowering his left arm very slowly to his side, he signaled the audience to withhold their applause (which they did after every movement) in order not to break the spell of this fine elegiac piece.
The orchestra’s glorious brass section stood out in the finale, in which Mahler’s writing gets busier and busier as the movement progresses. The Palm Beach Symphony, now 85 strong, played their hearts out for their appreciative Sunday afternoon audience, and indeed they gave this sprawling work a very fine reading.