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All's Well, Cadenza's Well

11.20.08
Alisa Weilerstein
ConcertoNet.com

I once asked a very eminent rather aged conductor about a certain contemporary composer. He recognized the name, but said he didn't ever listen or conduct the music. "After the age of 65", he said, "I decided to learn my own repertoire better, and not go any further".

That conductor was obviously the opposite of Lorin Maazel, who is going anywhere except gently into these good concert nights. As the years go by, Mr. Maazel not only expands his knowledge but takes on every challenge possible from composing his own opera, to conducting Berio's Sinfonia, to, last night, doing a marvelous job of Krzysztof Penderecki's Second Cello Concerto. If a demonic work for the soloist, it is hardly a piece of Polish kolacz cake for the conductor.

The orchestra itself is of Mahlerian dimensions, percussion alone numbering eighteen separate instruments. Penderecki's oh-so-subtle volumes go from the softest possible tones at the beginning to shattering chords, and solo sections which rival that of the cellist. Yet Maestro Maazel handled this not only with aplomb but with all the right dimensions and the right timing. Penderecki is not the easiest composer for New York audiences, but his effects can be ravishing, and Maestro Maazel made them sound extraordinary.

Almost as extraordinary as the young soloist, Alisa Weilerstein. The only complaint I have about the music is that instead of "concerto" it should be called Cadenza For Cello, Percussion and Orchestra. For after the long introduction, Ms.Weilerstein started what was virtually a 30-minute demonstration of every cello challenge in the book of challenges. I doubt if anybody can-or should-play them seamlessly, and they sounded as difficult as they obviously were. But that hardly diverted from the soloist's handling of the notes.

It wasn't literally all cadenza. A slow section near the end was as gorgeous for its long lines and graceful phrasing as Brahms or Dvorák cello work. And Penderecki had the most delicious fun with his tom-toms, snare drums and timpani. While Ms. Weilerstein was handling her own problems deftly enough, the percussion virtuoso percussion was just as busy.

The result of the entire piece was not quite as good as the sum of its parts. Penderecki wrote some very clear themes and variations, but the themes were rather banal. The attempts at bringing order from the beginning chaos is one of his old tricks, though still pretty effective. But in the end, one had to applaud the entire ensemble for giving the work a hearing and for having such a wonderful soloist at the helm.

The concert did not begin on such a shining series of notes. The opening work, Bach's Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, was written 75 years before conductors, and presumably for the usual royal audiences of about 100. Despite this, Lorin Maazel came out to conduct, and though his Baroque forces of two viola soloists, four cellists and a harpsichordist might have been near purity, it was not especially effective before the thousands of seats in Avery Fisher Hall. Neither the dry acoustics or the huge area were the best setting for the fine playing of Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young. The tiny ensemble sawed their way through it, but that work needs either a less spacious auditorium or a larger ensemble.

No words, though, can detract from the Beethoven "Stop-me-if-you've-heard-this one" Fifth Symphony. Lorin Maazel began with a questionable bang, totally forgetting about the eighth-rest after the first fateful four notes. But so powerful, so full of the expected brio that only a pedant would worry about that. The second movement, also taken at the right moving speed, was not only enjoyable, but it had a rare real, almost 18th Century grace.

As for the last movement, Mr. Maazel was in his element. Majestic or regal would be an understatement. This was monarchial, and Mr. Maazel, a musical monarch for seven decades, gave the New York Philharmonic a royal blazing blessing.