Guest post by Lindsay Perigo
Garrick Ohlsson Plays Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Jaime Martin, Conductor
Michael Fowler Centre, Fri Nov 13, 2015
In reviewing a concert at this moment in history, one is mindful of one's good fortune in being able to attend such an event without being shot, beheaded or blown up by Islamosavages. (How long can it be, one frets, before concert venues become like airport boarding gates?) One is mindful that the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms et al represents the cultural apogee of the values of the Enlightenment, which the terrorists wish to take down and replace with their vicious, totalitarian superstition. Last Friday evening was a fitting time to be savouring Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, Mozart's Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner") and Brahms' Piano Concerto No.1, emerging as they did from an era when reason and freedom were on the march, and superstition and tyranny were in retreat. Had one known a Muslim was about to presage his carnage in Paris with "This is for Syria," one would have relished all the more the proud proclamation, "This is for life, and the grandeur of man" that this concert effectively was.
Alas, the dearth of youngsters in attendance, the surfeit of empty seats and grey hair, were testament to the demise of Enlightenment values in western countries with or without the assistance of mass-murdering superstitionists. (Indeed, the very concert in Paris at which these sub-humans wrought their destruction was by a rock band called Eagles of Death Metal who like to scream, "Haaaaoooowwww! I came to make a bang!")
But those who did venture out to hear the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra were able to bask in the Enlightenment's after-glow.
If anything, the orchestra seemed uncharacteristically sluggish for the Beethoven, an overture the composer reworked many times for his opera Fidelio. Fans like to joke that the overture—at least, this version of it, which was not the one eventually used—was so brilliant he did it a disservice by plonking an opera on the end of it! Perhaps I've been spoiled by recordings, but the orchestra didn't seem to quite have the verve for a satisfying delivery. By the Mozart, however, they were awake, and were up for the "great fire" the composer demanded in the opening movement. It is called the "Haffner Symphony" because it was written as a serenade to celebrate the raising to the ranks of the nobility of a member of the Haffner family in Salzburg. Mozart missed the deadline for the ennoblement, but reworked the piece as a symphony in 1783. It is exuberant but aristocratic, vivacious but gracious, a showcase for the flutes and clarinets in particular—and empathetic conductor, ex-flautist Jaime Martin, commanded and caressed it to a sizzling conclusion.
When the impossibly tall and broad pianist Garrick Ohlsson strode on to the stage it seemed unlikely that a mere piano stool could accommodate his Colossian frame and that he would, while standing, hold the piano aloft in one hand and play on the thing with the other. Seldom would the musical stature of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 be so well matched by the physical stature of its performer!
This is among the greatest works in the literature. Like so many of its class, it was rejected at first by a public who weren't quite ready for it, eventually to take its place among the most popular piano works ever. Brahms wrote it as a youngster in mourning over the declining mental state of his friend Schumann and in love with Schumann's wife Clara. It is not overtly virtuosic in the manner of a Liszt, but subtly epic. It has turned up unacknowledged in all sorts of places. As a Mario Lanza aficionado I'm about the only person on earth to recognise that part of Lanza's 1952 hit, Because You're Mine, was nicked from the first part of its first movement. And, unrelated to Mario, I defy anyone to claim that the unofficial anthem of the American West, Home on the Range, officially attributed to Daniel E. Kelley, was not uplifted from that movement's F-major section!
(I and the people I've pointed it out to are also the only people on earth to know that Lanza's greatest hit, Be My Love, was definitely nicked from the first movement of Brahms' Piano Trio No. 2, while a minor hit, The Song Angels Sing, was such an obvious steal from the third movement of his Symphony No. 3 that it had to be acknowledged as such, and was. Small wonder that Lanza, in seeking to pay a compliment to Richard Rodgers [not the offender in the aforementioned nicking], likened his melodies to those of Brahms!)
But I digress. Suffice it to say that Mr Ohlsson's performance was ... well ... Colossian—but he was able to tame those massive hands for the exquisitely fragile second movement.
Ohlsson encored with another of his great loves, Chopin, but I for one was not going to be satisfied with anything less than Brahms' second piano concerto! Alas, it was not forthcoming. Memo to orchestra: two concertos in one evening is not out of the question. Think Freddy Kempf!
Arts Minister Chris Finlayson was in attendance. I hope he gives some thought as to how more youngsters might be introduced to the noblest music ever written, rather than abandoned to the ignoble, nihilistic headbanging they are deafening themselves with via their ipods.
The NZSO, in the meantime, are to be congratulated for keeping the flame. They and the titans they perpetuate are among humanity's finest, in quintessential contrast to the barbarian hordes that have invaded Europe.
Lindsay Perigo is a former television newsreader and interviewer, a present-day professional voice coach, an opera buff and capital music reviewer for Wellington’s Capital magazine, and the author of Total Passion for the Total Height and The One Tenor: A Salute to Mario Lanza (with foreword by Simon O’Neill).
He can be found at his blog, SOLO for Sense of Life Objectivists, his website LindsayPerigo.Com, and even—on supremely odd occasions—at Facebook. Make the most of that.