André Previn, Tom Stoppard and Shostakovich with the Toledo Symphony

May 19, 2011

Shostakovich and Previn/Stoppard : Soloists, Stefan Sanderling (conductor), Toledo Symphony, Carnegie Hall, New York City. 6.5.2011 (BH)

Shostakovich : Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 (1939)

André Previn/Tom Stoppard : Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977, NY Premiere, orchestrated version)

Cast:

Cornel Gabara, Director

Pete Cross (Alexander)
David DeChristopher (Ivanov)
Yazan “Zack” Safadi (Sasha)
Kevin Hayes (Colonel)
Benjamin Pryor (Doctor)
Pamela Tomassetti (Teacher)

You have to hand it to Stefan Sanderling and the Toledo Symphony, who made their Carnegie Hall debut last night as part of Spring for Music, a new initiative with orchestras not often heard in the hall, chosen for imaginative programming. Sanderling chose some rarely heard Shostakovich, along with an experiment dreamed up by André Previn and playwright Tom Stoppard – both eliciting some superbly committed orchestral work showing that Toledo has a treasure.

Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony is one of his best, with a long slow movement followed by two shorter ones, yet it remains off the radar. Sanderling began the first movement slower than most versions I’ve heard, yet sustaining the intensity with an undeniable grip. Among many impressive details, principal trumpet Lauraine Carpenter’s tone was startlingly immediate; at one point a friend noted, “She sounds like she’s aiming the bell right at us.” Sanderling drew warm, expressive playing, with the ensemble producing true pianissimos again and again. The long trills in the violas and cellos near the close were like wires stretched taut.

In the waltz-like second movement, the musicians were completely engrossed, with beguiling comments from the woodwinds, who tossed off the final bars – a gloriously liquid ascending scale – about as delicately as one could want. The final movement is the aural equivalent of a careening truck barreling down the highway (during the audience cheers I was silently praying for a repeat as an encore), but rather than dash off madly, Sanderling maintained a jaunty tempo that gave plenty of bloom to all the raucous dissonances. The swaggering trio that interrupts the gallop (detonated by the double basses) lurched with ferocity, with concertmaster Kirk Toth’s sinewy solo leading the high-speed chase of the closing pages.

In 1977 André Previn and Tom Stoppard discussed collaborating on a sort of “orchestra-play hybrid,” and the result was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (referring to the mnemonic device musicians use to remember the lines of the treble clef staff). There’s no denying it’s an odd duck: a short play that happens to require 94 musicians, with two main characters, both imprisoned and both named Ivanoff. One thinks he’s an orchestra conductor (David DeChristopher), the other is a dissident (Pete Cross). From a programming standpoint, the affinity with Shostakovich soon becomes evident, especially since Previn’s incidental music evokes the former’s Sixth Symphony with startling similarity.

Cornel Gabara directed, making nifty use of the stage space available around the ensemble, with additional fine performances by Yazan “Zack” Safadi (Sasha), Kevin Hayes (Colonel), Benjamin Pryor (Doctor) and Pamela Tomassetti (Teacher), and sophisticated animated graphics projected on Carnegie’s back wall. But in the end, I found the piece itself unsatisfying, and despite the excellent actors onstage, was longing for the musicians’ return. (This was Carnegie Hall after all.) Nevertheless, that feeling was tempered by firm admiration for a group packing the house by taking some real risks. And notably, in the almost sold-out audience were some 1,400 Toledo residents who had traveled to New York – heartening at a time when there is so much depressing news about orchestras going through hard times or disappearing altogether.

In Toledo next season the ensemble will replicate another Spring for Music concert, conductor Carlos Kalmar’s program with the Oregon Symphony: Ives’s The Unanswered Question, John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4. The reason: Sanderling and the orchestra wanted to retain a festival souvenir – how can one not smile at such an imaginative coda?

Bruce Hodges

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