Tonight, Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the local premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto at Carnegie Hall. I'll not mince words: Hidgon is one of my absolute favorite young composers. (I almost wrote "up-and-coming," but her dance card, overstuffed with major commissions like this one, asserts that she's already arrived.) She wrote her piece for versatile British percussionist Colin Currie, whose recordings on Naxos of works by James MacMillan and Michael Torke have been terrifically enjoyable.
Subtlety may not be a long suit in percussion concertos, generally speaking, but that's the tone in which Higdon's piece embarks: low, rolling fifths at the plummy bottom end of the marimba rumble at the edge of audibility. That was an intended effect, whereas the points at which the orchestra drowned out parts of the following vibraphone passage surely weren't. The soloist engaged in playful conversations with the ensemble's percussion section, including a terrifically scored passage for all manner of untuned wooden clicks and clacks. Currie's powerful solo break on bongos, timbales and tom-toms provided the climax of the first section; the piece then shifted, somewhat abruptly, into a pensive slow stretch colored by gently bowed and struck metal sounds. (While the piece was scored continuously, it clearly fell into a conventional fast-slow-fast arc.)
A bright finale opened once again on marimba, followed by an energetic break for soloist and percussion section that recalled African call-and-reponse and Brazilian batucada. Currie's final drum solo -- or cadenza, if you must -- combined all the technicality and sweaty abandon of a Buddy Rich extravaganza; I was stunned still more by po-faced string players sitting stock still as they awaited their cue to resume. Lighten up, y'all! Crack a smile, or something. Eschenbach showed no such restraint; I haven't seen that kind of dancing on a podium since Robert Spano left town. (Spano, of course, is another Higdon advocate. Hmmm.)
It would be silly to plumb such a piece for depths of profundity -- and that's seldom the point of percussion concertos, anyway. (Christopher Rouse's Der Gerettete Alberich comes closer than most, but in the end, even Rouse can't avoid indulging his John Bonham fetish.) What Higdon delivered was an expertly paced, brilliantly scored frolic that challenges the soloist, shows him off at his best and makes exemplary use of a modern orchestra's resources, along the lines of a Rouse or Joseph Schwanter. It will surely go down well with audiences, regardless of age or musical sophistication.
Following the break, Eschenbach delivered a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony that ultimately won me over, even as it made me ponder my own prejudices. I spent a good stretch of formative years in Houston during Eschenbach's tenure as music director of the Houston Symphony, and have long admired his deep musicality even when his interpretations have seemed to run counter to my ingrained preferences. I fondly recall elegant performances of Mozart operas and ravishing renditions of Mahler symphonies, and cherished his championing of at least a handful of contemporary composers, such as Rouse. And, oh yeah, Tobias Picker.
Eschenbach may have apprenticed with Szell and Karajan, but his Beethoven is altogether freer and more willful than that of either mentor. The headlong rush with which he opened the piece led to some muddy textures, but conveyed both power and purpose. Yet Eschenbach lingered gently over certain passages, slowing down to savor them, if only fleetingly. He directs the orchestra with the lithe physicality of a dancer; there's no mistaking the fact that he knows what he wants to convey in a score.
The Funeral March was broad but not ponderous in pace, thick but not plush in sound. The fugue in particular assumed an awesome, almost terrifying majesty: Eschenbach seemed to cast it as connective tissue between Mozart's Requiem and the gnostic sprawl of Bruckner. It was almost more tension than the music could bear, but not quite. The Scherzo flew past as a fizzy blur. Eschenbach practically conjoined that movement to the Finale, in a transition so abrupt as to remind one of his patented "Pathetique pirouette" (the nearly condescending full-body pivot he uses to ward off applause between the third and fourth movements of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony). This movement, too, showed some signs of conductorly retouching -- nothing so gross as rescoring, but definitely a managing of balances that cast a spotlight on the composer's "Prometheus" motive whenever it appeared, in or out of the basic pulse.
If Eschenbach's "Eroica" wasn't exactly my Apollonian ideal (or Beethoven's either, perhaps), it nonetheless struck me as a carefully considered, valid interpretation. This brings me to the pondering of prejudices I mentioned earlier -- namely, if Lorin Maazel's similarly flexible Beethoven disturbs me to the point of avoiding New York Philharmonic performances that include those works, why do I find Eschenbach's distortions more palatable? Are Eschenbach's insights more "correct," more "valid" than Maazel's? Or am I simply a smitten groupie? I don't know the answer. I'm just thinking out loud.
Meanwhile, having mentioned Tobias Picker, I've decided to hold off on talking about An American Tragedy until I've seen it again next week. That's not a luxury available to most critics, which makes me feel kind of lucky just this once not to have a looming deadline... especially since in nearly every review I've read since my own initial thoughts were swallowed by my machine last night, virtually everyone seems to have critiqued not the piece that was actually staged, but the one that he or she wanted to have seen and heard.
I can almost understand that impulse, since I went into the Met Monday night larded with my own expectations. It was only when I managed to set prejudice aside that I began to see An American Tragedy for what it actually was, what Picker actually achieved. It may have been Merchant-Ivory rather than Costa-Gavras, but there's surely room for both on the modern lyric stage. Still, I want a second dose in order to confirm that impression -- which certainly surprised me, and not unpleasantly.
Various Artists - Roadrunner United: The All-Star Sessions (Roadrunner)
Joseph Schwantner - A Sudden Rainbow; Angelfire*; Beyond Autumn**; September Canticle*** - Anne Akiko Meyers*, Gregory Hustis**, James Diaz***, Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Hyperion)
Claudio Monteverdi - The Sacred Music - 3 - The King's Consort/Robert King (Hyperion)
Phish - Live at Madison Square Garden, New Year's Eve 1995 (JEMP/Rhino, to be issued 12/20)