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Music for young and old


Music for young and old

THE NEW CRITERION, April 9, 2019

Music for young and old

On the Very Young People’s Concerts by the New York Philharmonic.

If you ever worry about the future of classical music, just attend a children’s concert. They are filled with eager audiences. And not just parents eager for student enrichment outside of the test-boxes formerly known as our schools. It’s the children who are most eager to be there as they commune through the ageless language of music, through sounds that are made without a battery in sight. As one youngster asked the bassoonist at a children’s concert I recently attended, “How do you turn it on and off?” The wondrous answer should be a tagline for orchestras everywhere: Classical music has no switch.

This sweet exchange occurred at a Very Young People’s Concert produced by the New York Philharmonic. Now in its fourteenth season, the series is pitched to children aged three through six. Very Young distinguishes these performances from the Philharmonic’s legendary Young People’s Concerts, made famous through Leonard Bernstein’s television appearances. I wrote about the phenomenon of those culture-changing performances, which are now available on dvd. In their seriousness of purpose and whimsy of presentation, Bernstein’s concerts continue to serve as touchstones for children’s music programming today.

It comes as welcome news that the Very Young People’s Concerts draw their inspiration from Bernstein’s legacy. It also explains why this series is so successful. The Philharmonic violist Rebecca Young hosts these performances. Born in New Jersey, Young grew up with Bernstein as her music teacher—through his children’s concerts. She attended her first Bernstein Young People’s Concert at age two and a half. She says it is her earliest musical memory. “I used to roll up the programs, put one under my chin, and use the other as a bow,” she recalls. “Not only did I always know I would be a musician—except for a short flirtation with the idea of medical school—I always knew I would be in the New York Philharmonic.”

She was right. Young not only joined the orchestra as its youngest member in 1986, but also became the host of her own children’s series. The Very Young People’s Concerts are very much about Young. She is a superb performer for children, with a comedic presence that fills the stage with her joy for music. She is joined by a quintet of Philharmonic musicians, several props, and an animated penguin named Philippe, who is occasionally projected on a screen, giving children another welcome object of focus.

The performances are made up of three half-hour sessions. The first gets the children in the door with small groups of musicians playing throughout the lobby and auditorium. Children sit on the floor or the performance stage as they acclimate to the hall. The second session is the concert itself, with the audience now well settled in their assigned seats (while also allowing for late arrivals). The third segment offers a chance for the children to see the musicians and instruments up close again in breakout groups.

The programs come with a lesson structured around musical vocabulary. The first concert this season was “Allegro and Adagio.” The terms “accelerando” and “ritardando” also made appearances here, along with homespun props in this concert about tempo, as the performers played Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda, selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Rebecca Young’s very ably delivered rendition of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

The second concert in the series introduced “Forte and Piano,” again through “Dance of the Hours,” here followed by an interactive arrangement called “The Forte and Piano Song,” where the forte players get called out one by one, and ending with selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46. In this concert about musical dynamics, “pizzicato” and “crescendo” were introduced, along with such mnemonic jingles as “Right near Lincoln Center, just behind the Apple Store, live a piano and a forte and the best musicians four.” As with the concert on allegro and adagio, the children were each given two cards with the thematic words—piano and forte—and encouraged to hold them up at the right times.

A small quibble: the color coding of these cards did not always align with the matching signs on the stage. In at least one case they were reversed. And in a concert called “allegro and adagio” or “forte and piano,” if the words appear onstage, they should be arranged in the same order, left to right. For an age group that in most cases cannot read, such visual alignments can be crucial.

The series’s venue, Merkin Hall, just a few blocks from the Philharmonic’s home at David Geffen Hall, also remains a detraction. With frayed carpet and peeling paint, this downtrodden auditorium does little to elevate young audiences or prepare them for the visual delights of a great music hall.

Thankfully, through the music of the Philharmonic and the dynamic presence of Rebecca Young, the young audience still rose to the occasion—and so did the older audience members. The New York Philharmonic Very Young People’s Concerts convey not only the joy of music but also the music of joy. The final concerts in the series, on “Treble and Bass,” will take place on June 2 and 3.


Drop the hammerklavier


Drop the hammerklavier

THE NEW CRITERION, January 30, 2019

Drop the hammerklavier

On a concert by the pianist Jonathan Biss at Carnegie Hall.

We thrill to the shrill. Or at least, so I’ve heard. Like much of contemporary life, contemporary music has been increasingly engineered for the outer reaches of pitch and volume. That’s what best suits the digital compression of contemporary music files. For the analogue-inclined, those of us who still question our mind-numbing times, our challenge is to recalibrate a renewed appreciation for the midtones of both music and life.

The pianist Jonathan Biss is among a generation of youngish concert pianists who can reacquaint us with the joys of the middle. For his anti-flash and studied schlump, I seek him out. Against the idols of the age he looks for intimacy in his instrument and a sense for the actual meaning of piano—soft—in pianoforte.

Many years ago, at Carnegie’s smaller Zankel Hall, I first heard his soft inaction in action. If not a revelation, it was at least a subtle joy. The challenge for Biss has been to translate this sensitive intimism to larger halls. A recital I attended not long after that Zankel performance, this time in Stern Auditorium, failed to capture. Born in 1980, Biss merely seemed to fill the hall with Gen X indifference—not so much mid-range as middling.

Last Thursday, Biss returned to the greatest stage for a solo recital. Replacing the scheduled performance by Leif Ove Andsnes, who had to withdraw from recent touring due to an elbow injury, Biss played four Beethoven piano sonatas from generally consecutive stages in the composer’s career, concluding, after the intermission, with the Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier.”

From the moment he crosses the stage, Biss betrays an unusual upward force. He walks, and plays, as you might expect a marionette to walk and play—suspended, with head and arms dangling. Rather than pounding on the keys, his action instead goes in the “up” direction, towards the puppeteer in the sky. At times his light touch offers its own dazzling passages. In the final Presto movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 6 in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2, as one hand chased the other in counterpoint, a digit or two may have made a run for it. Then for the Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3, a fun work sometimes known as “The Hunt,” the ivories were tickled to the point of mercy.

The keyboard instrument of Beethoven’s day was not the modern pianoforte but the lighter-framed fortepiano, which often snapped when put through the paces of the brash young composer. Biss performed as if he wanted his damage deposit back. His prestidigitation is impressive, but the act can also become mannered. A late inclusion of the eight-minute Piano Sonata No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2, performed between the other two, seemed superfluous. The anti-show was getting showy.

There is a special place in musical heaven for performers who fill in for a missing headliner. Here for Andsnes, this wasn’t necessarily Biss’s crowd. There was also an early sense that Biss didn’t care to make it his night, either. He wasn’t out to dazzle. He was here to do his job, his way.

The contrast from the earlier sonatas made this final performance all the more striking—in fact, it was the very piano of the earlier playing that made this forte so exciting.

That all changed after intermission. What exactly happened in Hammerklavier? Suddenly, compared to the marionette playing of the earlier sonatas, the player came alive. This piece is one of Beethoven’s later masterworks. Coming some twenty years after the early sonatas before intermission, Hammerklavier is not just Romantic, but also roaming. It is no surprise that Beethoven took a year to write it, searching and sifting through irregular pieces of classical form for this forty-five-minute work, his longest piano sonata.

Freed from his upward suspension, Biss dug into this ground. The contrast from the earlier sonatas made this final performance all the more striking—in fact, it was the very piano of the earlier playing that made this forte so exciting. (Biss’s recent recording of the work conveys some, if not all, of this excitement). In the Allegro, Biss played until his fingers seem to run out of breath. The Adagio sostenuto section was transcendent, while the Largo was like a sleeper hold. Then, finally, for the Allegro risoluto, Biss panted and groaned as he climbed up to his conclusion, grasping all the way for Ludwig Van, no strings attached.