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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Great Mahler from Neuhold, OSN at Blue Whale

Günter Neuhold conducts the National Symphony with violinist Alexandre Da Costa at the CCK’s Blue Whale.

Austrian conductor makes orchestra just as much a protagonist as soloist in Bruch’s First Concerto

After a very good concert with the National Symphony (ONS) at the Blue Whale in May, Austrian conductor Günter Neuhold delivered even better fare in June. Neuhold is a distinguished conductor born in 1947 who has held posts at Parma, Karlsruhe, Bremen and Bilbao. Equally at home in opera and concert music, his excellent technique (disciple of the famous Swarowsky and Ferrara) and vast trajectory are coupled with deep stylistic study of the scores; his presence with the OSN is quite positive (he has conducted them in earlier seasons).

There was another reason to be optimistic: the fine CV of Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa (debut). Two thousand concerts, many premières and 20 CDs while still quite young (he was born in 1979) speak of his ability. He chose Max Bruch’s famous First Concerto (1866); proving the lack of coordination betwen our city’s orchestras, it was also played by Xavier Inchausti (curiously, the OSN’s second concertino) the very same week at the Coliseo with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic conducted by Andrés Tolcachir.

Bruch wrote no less than eight scores for violin and orchestra; once in a while, it would be nice to vary the diet, especially with the Second Concerto. But there’s no doubt that the First Concerto rules with good reason, for it has convincing melodism, innovations in form and perfect imbrication between soloist and orchestra.

From the start, Da Costa showed four principal qualities: a terse, beautiful sound; very accurate playing in tune; precise articulation; and musical phrasing at all speeds. Just one caveat: I would have welcomed a richer, more Romantic tone (what he did was ideal for Mozart, rather). But it’s true that Neuhold gave the orchestra its full due, making it as much a protagonist as the soloist (and that’s surely right). The concerto emerged then as a collaboration whose joins were impeccable.

Da Costa’s encore was a surprise: a fast Jimi Hendrix piece where the violinist was accompanied by the “pizzicati” of cellist José Araujo. I liked the music and it was dazzlingly played. A great crossover.

I discovered Mahler’s First Symphony in an early batch of LPs in 1952: Mitropoulos conducting the Minneapolis Symphony. I was in the first of my teenage years and it marked my musical life forever. From 1953 to 1970, I heard it in eight concerts, proof that this was the only Mahler symphony that could be considered repertoire at the time, and with such able conductors as Sevitzky, Van Otterloo, Frühbeck de Burgos, Moralt, L.Ludwig, Horenstein and Dixon. It has been a staple ever since, and it stands to reason — probably, along with Brahms’, they are the best First Symphonies in history.

Neuhold’s reading was on the highest plane, with extraordinary attention to every nuance demanded by Mahler, the most obsessive of all composers concerning score indications. E.g., in the initial movements of the First movement, a fanfare must be heard from afar, and it was calibrated magisterially. Or the parodic moments of that so original Funeral march on Frère Jacques, never exaggerated but making their point.

The careful build-up of climaxes was sensitively followed by the very attentive orchestra, and in the fourth movement the final minutes were overwhelming, but never forced: the players were in top-notch form. I was reduced to tears as also happened last year at the very end of the Second, then conducted by Diemecke.

I mentioned Minneapolis earlier in this review: that city, capital of Minnesota, a cold Northern state, had one of the best orchestras of the USA, and recorded memorably under Ormandy, Mitropoulos and Dorati. Now they call it the Minnesota Orchestra, a bad change; it’s still first-rate. Minneapolis and Saint Paul are divided by the Mississippi River and they are called The Twin Cities. From there come the players of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies, made up of the best high-school musicians; they gave a debut concert here at the Law School, conducted by the experienced Mark Russell Smith.

Their programme included two premières from the US and a standard symphony. John Williams is famous as film composer; we heard The Cowboys Overture, based on his music for the 1972 film of the same name. It is loud, rhythmic and melodic. Into the Wild was written by a Minnesotan musician, Jacob Bancks, for the orchestra, in two movements (almost 19 minutes). The first is slow but has a nervous, quirky episode; the second is violent and dissonant. The orchestra, rather big (about 80 musicians) played with youthful enthusiasm under the very professional baton of Smith.

Brahms’ Second Symphony is his most leisurely, and felt more so, for the conductor observed the repeat of the exposition of the first movement, thus lasting 23 minutes. It was a serious, generally well-played performance, except for some horn mistakes. Encores: the vigorous Malambo from Ginastera’s Estancia and Bach’s Aria from the Third Suite, sensitively played. Of course, throughout the afternoon the resonant acoustics didn’t help.

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