Cleveland Orchestra launches Carnegie’s Weimar Republic festival with vivid Bartók, pallid Mahler, Krenek

Sun Jan 21, 2024 at 12:50 pm
Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

In music, the duchy (later city) of Weimar is remembered as home to Johann Sebastian Bach in the early 18th century and Franz Liszt in the mid-19th. In German political history, Weimar gave its name to the democratic republic that was negotiated there after World War I—and a period of artistic and political freedom that lasted barely a decade before the Nazi party snuffed it out.

Here in New York, The Fall of the Weimar Republic began Saturday night in Carnegie Hall, with a gentle push from Ernst Krenek.

Carnegie’s five-month festival by that name—commemorating the social and artistic ferment of between-the-wars Germany with dozens of concerts, lectures and exhibits at the hall and other venues around town—launched with a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by its longtime music director, Franz Welser-Möst.

The Vienna-born Krenek led the parade with his jazz-tinged, subtly subversive Little Symphony. Gustav Mahler’s visionary last musical thoughts, in the Adagio from his uncompleted 1910 Symphony No. 10, took a look both backward and forward in music history. And Béla Bartók gave two versions of “the shock of the new”: the intense, near-atonal concentration of his String Quartet No. 3 (of 1927, arranged here for string orchestra) and the defiance of bourgeois morality in 1919’s The Miraculous Mandarin.

The orchestra played like the world-class ensemble it is— svelte, balanced, coordinated to the microsecond. Poised and cool on the podium, with generalized time-keeping gestures, Welser-Möst didn’t seem to be asking for much in terms of expression—and, in the early going at least, he didn’t get it.

Krenek’s response to the raffish spirit of the era—for a stripped-down orchestra without violas, cellos, oboes or horns, and with a jazz-style rhythm section of mandolins, banjos, and guitar—came across as tame and overly polite. One could put this down to objectivism or dissociation of sensibility, ideas that had a lot of currency in the 1920s, but that would contradict the sassy populism that Krenek imbibed in Paris from American jazz bands and Les Six.

This performance seemed an uncertain trumpet to herald a festival of “degenerate music,” as the Nazis called it. But one could at least catch a whiff of changing times in the spare textures that made this piece a cousin of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, the novel combinations of woodwinds, the snatch of ragtime here and the dizzy flourish there.

Earlier in his career, Krenek had aspired to the symphonic mantle of Mahler, and by 1924 he was actually son-in-law to Mahler’s widow Alma, who asked him to complete the late composer’s Tenth Symphony from the latter’s sketches. Krenek declined, but pronounced two movements of the work completed enough to perform, including the opening Adagio.

It was a programming coup this night to pair Krenek with his idol, whose late musings seemed both to cap the Romantic era and to anticipate the unmooring of tonality. However, the carts stacked high with chairs and music stands that rolled onstage between the Krenek and the Mahler pieces said more about the aesthetic change between 1910 and 1928 than did Welser-Möst’s performance of the Adagio, which seemed a pale rendering of the crosscurrents and contradictions in the composer’s mind.

The players’ execution was often exemplary—especially Mary Kay Fink in what must be the most exposed piccolo entrance in the repertoire, a stratospheric pianissimo C sharp in the movement’s hushed closing bars—and the orchestra’s tone was rich from top to bottom. But the 23-minute movement sounded even longer than it was, with the strings not soaring, the sarcastic trills not biting, the dissonances not shocking.

In contrast, Bartók’s concise Third Quartet—in a new arrangement for double string orchestra by Stanley Konopka, the Cleveland’s assistant principal violist—put an explosive charge under the program’s second half. Why double strings?  Because, the arranger wrote, he found a split personality, calm and hostile, in the piece and wanted to give each side its own voice.

A solo quartet opened the performance with a subtle dialogue of motives, but soon the full complement of strings was demonstrating its virtuosity in well-defined swirls, smears, chopping downbows, and a light-footed fast fugato. The work’s alleged dual nature wasn’t obvious at first hearing, but the double ensemble avoided thickness and brought out the music’s rich and varied character.

Though later in date than The Miraculous Mandarin, on Saturday the quartet made an apt prelude to Bartók’s hair-raising expressionist drama, in which seamy scenes of seduction, robbery and murder assaulted the mind’s eye through the orchestra’s piercingly vivid performance. (This so-called “Suite from…”—published eight years after the premiere—was actually the entire first two-thirds of the pantomime, up to its climactic moment, with a concert ending added.) 

The tea-party politeness of the concert’s first half was forgotten as Afendi Yusuf’s ever-more-urgent clarinet solos evoked a girl luring men to be robbed and wild crescendos depicted the pouncing of the thieves. The victims—an elderly gentleman, a timid youth, and a mysterious “mandarin”—emerged clearly as orchestral portraits.

One could hear the shine of the mandarin’s silk robe in the woodwinds, the panting of his desire in the strings, and finally the demented fury of his pursuit of the girl in an orchestral tour de force that, at last, gave an apt kickoff to a festival celebrating an all-too-brief period of license, and licentiousness, in the arts.

The Fall of the Weimar Republic continues with the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, in works by Prokofiev and Webern, 2 p.m. today at Carnegie Hall.

The the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with the Marcus Roberts Trio, performs works by Stravinsky, Weill, and Gershwin, 8 p.m. Tuesday at Carnegie Hall.

One Response to “Cleveland Orchestra launches Carnegie’s Weimar Republic festival with vivid Bartók, pallid Mahler, Krenek”

  1. Posted Jan 21, 2024 at 2:12 pm by Apt. 6c

    I did not find the first half of last night’s adventurous program to be “teaparty polite” in any way unless you are talking about Krenek’s very intentional parodying of tea dance orchestra repertoire in his “Little Symphony”.

    I found Most’s reading of the piece clearly and persuasively articulated Krenek’s borrowings and blendings from Jazz, Baroque, Classical and the Fox Trot in what is essentially a subversive unmooring of musical genre. I was more than happy not to hear a reading that forced Kander & Ebb on to it. I loved the Mahler adagio as well.

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