Carnegie Hall

Sometimes I think that my main reason for spending a lot of time in New York is Carnegie Hall. The city boasts many other attractions: great dance performances, occasional good theater, several opera companies (including some very good small ones), excellent chamber-music concerts all over the place, and art museums and galleries that, for range and depth, triumph over those in just about any other metropolitan area. But for pure consistency of pleasure, night after night, nothing else can beat Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie offers a different program on every day of the week—sometimes two or three programs a night, given its multiple halls—so when I plot out my New York stay, I always start with the Carnegie listings, since if you miss one performance, you miss everything. This spring’s visit was planned in part around two Mitsuko Uchida performances: the solo concert she gave on Thursday, March 31, in Stern (the largest hall) and the joint concert with clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann that took place in Zankel (the medium-size hall) on Sunday, April 2. A single piece—Widmann’s Sonatina facile, receiving its New York premiere—was repeated in both programs.

Uchida began her solo concert with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a piece you have probably heard a thousand times (and may even have played yourself, if you took piano as a child). Miraculously, she made this old chestnut sound like something new as it shyly and delicately emerged from beneath her fingers. But it was her performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which came next, that really knocked me out. I had heard the virtuosic Daniil Trifonov perform it with great brio at Carnegie last fall, and had imagined then that nothing could be better; now I realized that his rendering, while extraordinarily skilled (“Like a piano-player from outer space, come down to show us how it’s done” was how I thought about it at the time), lacked the human touch that Uchida gave it. In her hands, the Schumann had immense feeling—as did another difficult Schumann work, the Fantasy in C Major, which she gave us after the intermission. That C Major key pointed back toward the Mozart work with which she had started the program, but the real echo, loud and clear, came in the Widmann Sonatina, which actually borrowed some of the familiar Mozart phrases for its repeated theme. Hence the whole program felt, in a way, like one extended composition, with various hands contributing to the music—including, not least, Uchida’s.

The very different program she and her co-star offered on Sunday afternoon gave me a chance to reconsider the Widmann work in a different context. Placed after a Berg selection of Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano and Widmann’s own Fantasie for Solo Clarinet, both of which had a jazzy, appealingly erratic, brave-new-modernist quality, the Sonatina now sounded more like a player-piano run wild and less like a sedate imitation of the classics.  It’s great when a new piece can contain multitudes in this way, can be one thing on one night and another thing on another; it suggests that it will have legs. The two well-matched performers closed out the second half of the program with Schumann again — this time his Fantasiestücke for piano and clarinet. That was certainly a deep pleasure to hear, a fitting end to a great program. But I think the work that will stay with me the longest is the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F Minor with which they opened. Companionable, occasionally plaintive, sometimes passionately warm, it was an eye-opener for many of us—a new aspect of Brahms for people who thought they had already taken his measure. In the hands of masters like these two, even the old pieces keep growing.

Less than a week later, I was back at Carnegie to hear my hometown orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, under the inspired direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (“How do the orchestra members know how to follow his strange gestures?” a New Yorker asked me afterward, and I didn’t even understand what he was talking about: to me, the way MTT conducts has become the watchable norm.) My reason for going to this concert was the presence on the program of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, written in 1959 for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. I thought I appreciated this work already, but I had no idea. Whether it was due to the brilliant soloist (a Frenchman named Gautier Capuçon) or the excitement of performing in Carnegie before an enthusiastic and surprisingly young audience, the orchestra shone in a way I have rarely heard it do before. Every minute of the Shostakovich was galvanizing, and though I liked the Cage and Bartok works that surrounded it, they couldn’t compare with that high point in the middle of the program. It felt as if the cello had been invented for Shostakovich to use it at the center of his piece, and as if the rest of the orchestra had been developed for this precise purpose as well. That sense of profound inevitability cannot be laid wholly at Carnegie Hall’s door; surely the composer, the orchestra, and the cellist deserve some credit, too. But I can’t help feeling that the warm, welcoming, historically important, acoustically blessed auditorium helped create the experience that gave me so much joy.

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