Lorin Maazel Returns to His Favorite Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Debussy: Nancy Allen (harp), Robert Langevin (flute), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 13-10-2011 (SSM)

Mozart – Symphony No. 38 in D major, Prague, K.504
Mozart – Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp, K.299/297c
Debussy Jeux: Poème dansé
Debussy Ibéria, from Images for Orchestra

Has any conductor in history had as long a relationship with an orchestra as has Lorin Maazel with the New York Philharmonic? His first appearance as their conductor was in 1942 at the age of twelve, in Lewisohn Stadium in front of 8500 people. While the seven years (2002-2009) that he contractually directed the NYPO is nowhere near Eugene Ormandy’s record forty-three years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, one can see why there is a special bond between this conductor and orchestra. The rapport was evident with every note played.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 is unusual in several respects. Haydn had started using slow introductions to his first movements in symphonies as early as his 6th and in every one of his last 15, generally to great effect, but the 38th was Mozart’s first attempt to use this stylistic method. He certainly must have had opera overtures in mind while writing: the opening sounds like a cross between the overtures to the just-completed Marriage of Figaro and soon-to-be-completed Don Giovanni. As for a similarity to the Magic Flute overture, we have that in the opening string measures:

Although Mozart wrote many three-movement symphonies, most of them were early compositions. I suspect he felt that the 38th really had four movements, with the first being the long, slow introduction. If Mozart’s requested repeats are taken, this Adagio can take upwards of 15 minutes to perform, more than the length of any of the movements that follow.

From the opening notes it was evident that Maazel’s interpretation of the work would be a serious one. He conducted without a score and drew an intense, dramatic reading from the orchestra. A master of detail, Maazel educed lines and phrases so clearly delineated that they revealed unheard music. So much of this symphony consists of fragmented motifs that connecting them requires a conductor of Maazel’s stature and an orchestra that knows exactly what the conductor is looking for. This is particularly true for the development section of the final movement which puts the orchestra through instrumental exercises in counterpoint. My only qualm, and this is a conductor’s choice, was that the da capos were not taken.

The Concerto for Flute and Harp is an oddity by any standard, but there are other strange combinations in Mozart’s catalog: the violin and viola Sinfonia concertante or the lesser known one for oboe, horn, clarinet and bassoon. Even Köchel himself, not knowing how to categorize it, put it not unwisely under “wind concerti,” and it does share the galant, courtly, aristocratic demeanor of the two earlier flute concerti.

Having been spoiled by recordings that normalize the volume of the two solo instruments, I was struck by how much more music the flute actually carries than the harp. Certainly it was not the fault of Nancy Allen if at times she was inaudible when playing the quiet (piano) measures in the score. The orchestra’s accompaniment was kept appropriately in the background, without any attempt to draw attention to itself. The flautist Robert Langevin was clearly aware of the problem of potentially drowning out the harpist and pulled back when it was Ms. Allen’s turn to play, but short of amplification, there seems to be no method to compensate for the hall’s poor acoustics. Yet all in all, this was a fine performance of a delightful work.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Debussy. If these works were meant to show off what the orchestra could do or did do under Maazel’s reign, they certainly excelled. Jeux is a difficult and complex work with little of the tonality required to make it immediately accessible. This is not La Mer or L’Après-midi d’un faune. Rather, it’s looking in the direction of the orchestral music of his disciple, Ravel, or Stravinsky, whose Le Sacre du printemps had just been premiered.

The excerpt Ibéria from Images for Orchestra is closer to the Debussy that most of us know. While not programmatic in the way that the works of Debussy’s elder contemporary, Paul Dukas, were (e.g. Sorcerer’s Apprentice), this tone poem still attempts to musically mirror the work’s titles. The final section, “Morning of a Festival Day,” starts off quietly but quickly evolves into a musical festival, giving Maestro Maazel the opportunity of showing the world what a first-class ensemble he helped to create.

Stan Metzger