Western Civilization: It’s A Keeper

New York City is a crowded, chaotic place. The public transit is bad and getting worse, and the weather is, generally, awful. Housing is cramped and expensive. The Mets and Jets collapse, like clockwork, year after year. But there are times when I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

This evening the lovely Nina and I joined the Tuesday-night crowd at Avery Fisher Hall, where the Philharmonic, under the guidance of maestro Lorin Maazel, treated us to a splendid and eclectic program.

First up was Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 2 in F Major — never my favorite of the six, but let’s not quibble; it was a marvelous performance, and the band were just getting warmed up.

Next, the harpsichord was wheeled offstage, a piano positioned front and center, and the orchestra was joined by the great Emanuel Ax for a performance of a piece I had never heard before: Symphonie Concertante for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 60, by Karol Szymanowski — a strange and beautiful piece, very difficult to categorize.

Mr. Ax remained on stage for the next piece, Richard Strauss’s Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra. This piece, which Strauss began writing when he was only 21, is unorthodox in various ways — it is rather brief, having a form not unlike the first movement of a concerto, and the piece begins with the introduction of the main theme by solo timpani — but it is a serious work, and technically demanding. Mr. Ax gave us a dazzling, lusty performance, and we in turn gave him three curtain calls.

After the intermission came what was, for me at least, the high point of the program: a spellbinding performance of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. We all know this piece; we’ve all heard it many, many times; but it never loses its haunting, stately majesty, and I have never been so moved by it as I was tonight. Avery Fisher Hall is not the world’s finest acoustic space, and at times the orchestra can sound, please forgive me, a little brittle in there, depending on where you are sitting — but for this piece, with the full orchestra on stage, it was magnificent. By the end — the august and imposing tribute to the unbuilt architectural fantasy The Great Gate of Kiev — my heart felt very full, and tears were welling in my eyes.

How wonderful.

Yup, as the old song goes, it’s a hell of a town.

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5 Comments

  1. JK says

    Doggone! Have we got the timestamps correct? I would swear my PBS station told me I was watching that on New Year’s Eve!

    Was there, by chance Malcolm, a pretty good looking blonde with both a nice voice and a good set of teeth singing? Beautifully?

    Admittedly I’m from Arkansas and so timezones are probably different. The further qualification of course would be “a good set of teeth.” Anyway the lady with the fine set of teeth had an angelic voice.

    Well truthfully, some of our females have both good teeth and beautiful voices – but those females are usually whinnying and wearing horseshoes on all their four legs, and rather than obstinatricions they hang out in veterianarian waiting rooms.

    You’ve told me before Malcolm but I forget – why is it I’m single?

    Posted January 7, 2009 at 3:16 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You might be thinking of the Metropolitan Opera, about a hundred yards away.

    As for your question: well, as Newton once said, “hypotheses non fingo”.

    Posted January 7, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  3. Well Mac,
    Sounds like a wonderful evening indeed- I’ve got to hand it to Nina -she has truly civilized you! -just a wee joke laddy-buck…

    And JK – life just is not fair- most of those whom I have truly loved are no longer amongst the living, and it IS better to have loved and lost than never etc… Still new love can grow afresh for any of us (I sure hope so anyway)-

    It may be warranted to take a trip to NYC -Mac & Nina can introduce ya to fine human beings -even if they disagree with Mac’s politics huh?-

    LOVE to all and to all a good new year!

    Posted January 7, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    I’m all confused now. I remember Lorin Maazel from his stint with the Pittsburgh Orchestra. But I didn’t know that he directed horse operas.
    Please advise.

    Posted January 7, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says

    Thank you Pat. Now I have hope (in addition to memories of my ex) but as they say, “Hope winters eternal.”

    Bob, sorry to confuse, the horses I commented about are in Arkansas.

    Posted January 7, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink