The music and the money♦
What a few weeks I’ve had! It started with my taking in Michael Hollinger’s Opus at the Arden on March 10th, largely on the impetus of Robert Zaller’s review at this website; for the next two weeks, I revisited the Melos Quartet’s recordings of Beethoven middle quartets on my drive to work. Opus 59 and Opus 95 interleaved with “All Things Considered” and Howard Eskin— my version of commuting heaven.
Last night ( March 28), I heard pianist Richard Goode’s revelatory reading of the Schubert D Major Sonata, D. 850, at Curtis, framed by readings of Bach— music that, as a friend recently remarked, puts you in touch with God even if you don’t believe in God. In between, the pleasure of singing Bruckner motets at Penn Choral Society rehearsals in the music department’s wonderful new rehearsal space in Fisher-Bennett Hall; a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto; and, on March 24th, a concert sponsored by Astral Artistic Services.
Of all these events, this last one made me feel more optimistic about the fate of classical music than I have for a long time.
Astral Artistic Services, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization, serves as a “career bridge” for promising young local artists. Most of its concerts are performed at the Trinity Center on Spruce Street in Center City. But as a way of introducing its protégés to the Philadelphia community and as a perk for its patrons, Astral sometimes sponsors dinner concerts at private homes. I’m not a patron, but more or less by blind luck I found myself on Friday, March 25th at one of these concerts in the Center City home of Jane and Chuck McGuffin, listening to two young Juilliard graduates, violinist Jennifer Curtis and cellist Susan Babini.
The program was as imaginative and intense as it was short; as Ms. Curtis put it, it was a Kodaly-Bach sandwich. The first and last movements of Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello served as the bread. The meat — nice big tasty slabs of it — consisted of the Giga from the monumental Violin Partita No. 2 (the one with the great Chaconne at the end) and the first movement of the third solo Cello Suite. And like a dill pickle on the side, a small work by Ms. Curtis herself ended the recital.
A performance Bernstein would have loved
The night before (March 23), I had heard Rudolf Buchbinder play the Brahms First Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s hard to believe that in all these years of attending concerts I’d only heard one previous live performance of this work, but all I can recall is the time I heard Glenn Gould play an eccentric version at Carnegie Hall around 1960 with the New York Philharmonic— a reading so crazily idiosyncratic that Leonard Bernstein felt compelled to explain to the audience that this certainly was not his idea of how the piece should go. So the opportunity to hear it again was what I had circled in red on my mental calendar.
The performance was worth the wait. Buchbinder gave a performance that I’m sure Bernstein would have loved —at once massive and lyrical, full of rhythmic subtleties and textural details I’d never heard before. But even before the piece began, I was beset by the sort of misgivings that I feel a good deal of the time these days at Orchestra concerts.
I considered the Steinway grand sitting on the stage, about $100,000 worth of steel and exotic woods; the 12 pages in the Playbill acknowledging the Orchestra’s financial supporters; Verizon Hall itself, whose financial problems have already become a part of Philadelphia’s continuing civic soap opera; the thousands of pianists in the world, some of them professionals, who could never think of playing this concerto; the hundred or so musicians on the stage, each earning (and deserving much more than) about $100,000 a year. So much money and so much work involved in enabling Buchbinder to scale this Matterhorn of a piece, in letting Brahms speak through him for 40 minutes! No wonder I so often have to fight the urge to doze off at the Orchestra.
The good news is that all this effort attracted a highly enthusiastic audience of about a thousand. The bad news is that yet again a major work by Brahms had filled barely half the seats in Verizon Hall.
Spectacular music— and no fund-raising
On the other hand, everything about Friday’s Astral concert was invigorating. I had not thought much about what the evening might involve beyond supposing that I had allowed myself to be roped into a fund-raiser that might have a bit of pleasant music thrown in. Wrong on two counts. Nobody asked me for any money. The music was spectacular. And, to my delight, the company and conversation at the subsequent dinner constituted social chamber music in their own right.
The woman sitting to my left, whose profession is risk management for the real estate business, turned out to be a serious amateur oboist looking for an opportunity to play Mozart serenades. The attorney seated across the table from me, a specialist in intellectual property law, had been trained as a concert pianist; at one point, his eyes flashing with enthusiasm, he began singing — of all things — an excerpt from Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Suite. Here was Philadelphia’s prosperous intellectual elite funding the arts at what could have been an 18th-Century Viennese salon. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the original J.S. Bach aficionado, who championed Beethoven and had him play the Well-Tempered Clavier at his soirées, would have been delighted.
Great soloists of the future
A few years ago, I had heard another Astral artist, the pianist Simone Dinnerstein, give a memorable concert consisting of Anton Webern’s beautifully lyric Piano Variations, paired with a full-length performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Since then, Ms. Dinnerstein has taken substantial steps toward establishing her own career. Just this week, another Astral musician, the soprano Karen Slack, scored a major triumph at the Metropolitan Opera. (If you want to feel good about the state of the world, look up David Patrick Stearns’s wonderful article on her in the March 28th Inquirer.
It is not much of a stretch to imagine that 40 years from now, Simone Dinnerstein, Jennifer Curtis, or Susan Babini might be playing transcendental concerts like those of Richard Goode. For now, though, the memory of the beautiful acoustic space in the home of friends being filled by the C major Cello Suite’s torrents of C major scales and runs will sustain me for a long time.
To view a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
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