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The Orchestra Now with Neemi Järvi

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Oct 16th, 2017

Neemi Järvi with Anna Shelest

At Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on October 15, Neemi Järvi conducted Bard’s The Orchestra Now with precision and nuance. I had not heard of Järvi until 1990 when he became conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The next year I bought one of his recordings, then bought a few more. From the first recording I was sure that he was a top tier conductor in the ranks of Ormandy, Solti, Ozawa, Abbado, and a few others. Järvi is now featured in over four hundred recordings on several labels. I’m sure he had a few tips for the students of The Orchestra Now which has slightly improved since I last heard them.

I was happy to see Concertmaster Michael Rau appear and play with suave assurance throughout the concert which opened with Jean Sibelius’ Andante Festivo (1938). This was a smooth, somewhat gentle and mysterious mood piece that provided a pleasant ice-breaker. Then Anna Shelest arrived at the piano to perform Anton Rubenstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70 (1864). I thought the year 1864 significant: in 1863 and the beginning of 1864 uprisings in Lithuania and Poland broke out. The Russians brutally crushed these uprisings.

Rubenstein’s Romantic Piano Concerto begins with an orchestral march amid warlike toots. I could hear Micah Candiotti’s clarinet clearly in war mode. The piano is annoyed and begins to argue with the military approach. The orchestra appears to declare the piano irrelevant. Angrily, the piano argues with the orchestra and the orchestra argues back. The piano re-assesses its approach: it begins to persuade the orchestra gently. Some progress is made. The piano becomes even more seductive and leads the orchestra. The orchestra follows and mutual agreement leads to greater musical heights as they both grow and develop together. It appears that cooperation and peace lead to greater security and prosperity for all concerned.

The rousing conclusion of the fourth movement affirms what can be accomplished in the name of peace, negotiation, prosperity. Shelest was magnificent in bringing out these nuances with delicacy and thunder when it was called for. The Manichean tendencies of the Russian folk tunes flowered. Shelest delivered far more power, especially in the bass, than her slight of frame would indicate. Her fingers were on fire.

In the first half of the twentieth century Rubenstein’s concerto was a classical standard in both Eastern and Western Europe, yet now it is rarely played outside of Eastern Europe. Once again it speaks to us in the United States with timely wisdom.

Shelest next played Rubenstein’s Caprice Russe, Op. 102, a piece rarely played. This cornucopia of folk tunes was sheer delight. Like a travelogue that swept across Russian hills and steppes, it gathered melodies into a giant rolling snowball along its merry way. I move (someone please second this motion) that Caprice Russe become a standard that rolls across this country to the delight of young and old. A video of Shelest playing piano appears below.

During Intermission I approached an orchestra player who appeared dejected because no one spoke to him This was cellist Kyle Anderson, quite a pleasant conversationalist, from New Orleans. New to the program at Bard, he confessed that since he was a child he wanted to play in an orchestra. He comes from a musical family: his father plays bass, his mother the cello. Kyle had studied under noted cellist Sharon Robinson. He sported a new bow, a Malo made in Montreal, and he had a Chinese cello which was about ten years old. I wondered if his cello was nearly as good as the other cellos in the orchestra and I thought he must really work hard on that cello.

The second half of the program was Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemmingway for cello and orchestra. This composition loosely follows some themes from Hemingway’s novels. Guest cellist Zuill Bailey played with fervid energy and ferocity. The first movement, Big Two-Hearted River seductively dramatizes the potential for Nature to heal war wounds. I enjoyed this movement a great deal. For Whom the Bell Tolls recounts rousing patriotism in the face of Generalissimo Franco’s despotic dictatorship. Student Diego Gabete, who offered a brief introduction to this composition, noted that his father had fought against Franco and that his father had survived barely after many years in a concentration camp. This was a sensible display of historic patriotism.

The Old Man and the Sea ended less pessimistically than I thought it would. The Sun Also Rises featured evocations of bull fighting and arrived at a grandiose, celebratory climax which I found to incongruous to the novel which tells the story of an upper class lady who falls in love with an American soldier in Spain; she loves everything about this man, especially his personality, yet she also yearns for physical satisfaction and would happily marry him, except that the man’s sexual equipment had been erased by a bomb. The book has romantic bull fights and intense romantic aspirations, but war has left a tragic wound that neither Nature nor medical science can remedy. The romance ends with mutual frustration and bitter despair. It seemed curious that this movement appeared to celebrate only the romanticism of the bullfight, which as a symbol in the novel becomes drenched in biting irony.

Nonetheless, this last piece was quite popular with the audience which demanded several bows and an encore. For encore, Neemi Järvi dutifully led the orchestra in a repeat performance of the opening Sibelius’ Andante Festivo, which was ever-so-slightly rendered better the second time around.