Concert Review: NSO: Slavonic Series- A Hero and a Witch

with Steven Isserlis
Spoiler: the highlight was that I got to meet Mr. Isserlis after the concert. He is a very nice human. 

Sunday afternoon concerts always seem… less formal. There’s something about an evening event that makes it seem more… well, formal.
In any case, I’d bought this ticket a month or more ago, prior to some recent schedule changes, and had to adjust my affairs to be able to attend, but boy was I glad I did.

I’ve mentioned before that concerts are one of the few places that my constant internal “what do I need to be doing right at this moment or in the next five?” dialogue shuts off and I can sit and focus and enjoy (and think about what I’m going to write here). It’s not just a musical experience; it’s a kind of mental have. That sounds cliche, but it’s really true.
Today’s concert was another in the NSO’s Slavonic Series this season, featuring composers from Eastern Europe. I attended another of these a few months ago, with Maestro Antoni Wit, where they performed Liszt’s Eb piano concerto, Janacek’s Sinfonietta, and some other quite interesting Slavic works.
The first impression of today’s performance was that there seemed to be almost no one there. I had a pretty decent seat, but not my favorite, and the concert began. Francesco Angelico is a tall, young, thin, Italian thing with a head of hair that looks like he’s aspiring to Isserlis’ coif, but it’s jet black and shorter.
The Bartok begins, and it’s very…. Bartokish. It’s a suite of six sections written to celebrate the previously not united Hungarian cities of Buda and Pest. Guess what they called the new city. It was written in 1923 and is in six sections, but through composed. While I always feel like Bartok has a very distinct voice (I’m most familiar I guess with his piano concertos, but even then, only
tenuously), what struck me here was not just his penchant for catchy rhythms or peasant, folky tunes (very suitable in a dance suite), but the textures he created with the orchestra, especially with the use of piano, celesta, harp and (of course) percussion. It was a very catchy, interesting, exotic piece that Angelico seemed very into, but when it was over, the audience had a weird clapping thing. They started to clap, but then stopped. On the one hand, it was as if they were worried the piece wasn’t finished, because the conductor didn’t make a grand I’m finished. Voila! gesture, but then to him, it must have seemed like we were not enthused about the performance. It seemed a bit that way to me, too. In any case, the piece was over and lights dimmed. Violins did some shuffling, and a place was made for a white podium with a bench and a music stand. Lights come back up, out come the violins, back to their slightly-farther-back places, and shortly after them come Isserlis and Angelico. Angelico seems tall, but Isserlis seemed taller. At least his hair did.
The Kabalevsky concerto begins with pizzicato from the soloist. I was most eager to hear how differently gut strings sound, if at all.
Let’s pause for a moment, though. While my internal dialogue of the outside world stops at concerts, there’s often another one, as I mentioned earlier, that gets started, and it’s focused on the music. During the Bartok, there were a few things that struck me, as I mentioned above, but Isserlis’ performance of this very very interesting concerto was captivating, spellbinding. The concert was entitled A Hero and a Witch, in reference to the two pieces on the second half of the program, but watching Isserlis manhandle the cello during this concerto made him seem like both a hero and a witch. It was incredible. Much of the first part of the first movement is way up on the cello’s range; thumb position, maybe? In any case, there was lots of incredibly intricate and incredibly fast fingering and bowing. It was incredible. It made me think of a spider, for some reason. Perhaps it was because it looked and sounded as if he had as many arms (legs?), especially in the highest register of the cello. It was intense and dark and almost hypnotic. The piece felt obviously, overwhelmingly Russian, but not in any kind of modern Schnittkean or even Prokofiev-ian way. It was heavy, energetic, intense, and moody (?). While there was quite a big orchestra, including a harp and even an alto saxophone (!), the orchestra seemed very much to take a secondary role in the piece. Perhaps that was just because of how intense Isserlis was on his podium, rocking back and forth, stomping his (left) foot, and, when he had the chance, throwing his arms up in the air as if he were to start conducting with his bow. He was very passionate about this piece, which struck me as, not odd, but… interesting. When you say the words ‘cello concerto,’ my impression is people usually think Dvorak, Elgar, Schumann, Beethoven 56 or Brahms 102, not Kabalevsky’s second, but it was a captivating piece, one I will have to get my hands on a recording of. He seemed especially excited about the alto saxophone solo, who was given the spotlight for just a moment. His throwing of hands in the air felt not like a showy gesture, but one of excitement and an overwhelming desire to share.
There are cadenzas at the two seams between the three movements, and they are so intense and fast and furious as to be frightening. I didn’t know a bow could reach that many strings as fast as it did (or at all), but they were both amazing. The piece, after some brighter more uplifting moments in the finale, comes to a very quiet, somber, but peaceful finish before a very pregnant pause, eventually interrupted by rapturous applause.
Isserlis walked off the stage a number of times after multiple bows, and came back to play a short, sweet piece (excerpt of a suite?) as an encore. He gave a bow, as did his cello (a gesture that made it look like he was pouring water out of the holes), and they left for the final time. The orchestra instantly followed, and we had reached the intermission.
The two pieces to follow were the respective witch and hero of the title of the concert, but I’m still not sure who the people are on the front of the program. I assume they represent our witch and our Taras Bulba (whose name sounds like a Star Wars character. Just saying).
The Dvorak piece was stunningly beautiful. The plot of the tone poem was very clear. Having read the program notes beforehand, one knows what happens in what order, and there was no question what was happening as we were listening. Dvorak’s writing is rich, shimmery, and melodious, but just as ominous and evil as it is beautiful when it needs to be. It was the most Romantic of the four pieces of the afternoon, and seemed to be the shortest.
Mere seconds before the second half began, however, a very tall, very refined-ly hirsute gentleman snuck into the auditorium, escorted by an usher. It was Isserlis. He’d changed into civilian attire, jeans and a black t-shirt, and had stayed to enjoy the second half of the program. Back to said program.
The Janacek piece was probably… my least favorite of the afternoon. It was longer than the Dvorak, and … I can’t speak to the piece itself at all, but I highly doubt it had anything to do with the performance of the NSO, who has always been stunning. The Janacek was in three movements, and had (but not featured) an organist, who could be heard clearly at various points throughout the piece, but never thunderingly. I was expecting something like the heavenly opening of Mahler’s eighth, but we only got little bits and pieces. I have to say, I was not super impressed or interested in this piece. The NSO’s performances have always been top notch, and their performance of Janacek’s Sinfonietta last year was gripping from the get-go. I just didn’t get much from Taras Bulba. It had its moments.
This was an interesting program with some more obscure pieces, but it’s one of those that I’m perfectly happy walking into with almost no knowledge of the works to be performed, and just expecting to be pleasantly surprised. I am reminded of how…conservative, in many ways the programming is here, as compared with what happens in Europe or New York, so it was a treat to hear a cello concerto that was new to me. Would it have been wonderful to hear Isserlis play Elgar or Dvorak? I’m sure, and they would have done an amazing job. But I’ve heard them before (albeit not of the quality that their performance would have been), so it was nice to hear something new and interesting, especially as captivating as it was. The Bartok was interesting, the Dvorak was stunning, and I’m at least willing to give Janacek’s piece another listen sometime. I was also impressed with Angelico’s focus and poise throughout the entire concert. He seemed intense and passionate. And his entire name sounds like liquor.
The highlight of the day, though, was the brief 30 seconds I had to chat with Isserlis. I left as soon as the program was over and passed him on the stairs. Again, a tall Englishman like him (with his hair) is hard to miss in Asia, and hardly anyone else had left their seats. I asked him if I could shake his hand, and he acted like that was an absurd question. We walked to the elevator, I thanked him, and we went our separate ways. When I thanked him, he said “isn’t it a nice piece of music?” as if he was talking about a great purchase from an art gallery. He was pleasant and laid back and seemed just generally pleased to have shared that piece with the audience today. Super nice guy. I didn’t get a picture or an autograph or anything, though. Nor did I ask him what the encore was, or about his preference for gut strings. I got a bit jumbled, but was really kind of goofily excited to shake his hand and thank him.
Thank you.

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