On Friday morning, I went to David Geffen Hall to hear Alisa Weilerstein, the great American cellist, play the Rococo Variations of Tchaikovsky. The orchestra was the New York Philharmonic, of course, and the conductor was Jeffrey Kahane, the Californian who often does double duty. That is, he plays piano concertos and conducts them at the same time.
Indeed, Friday’s concert began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453, which Kahane “play-conducted.” I usually think this is a conceit and a curse, play-conducting. The playing suffers, and so does the conducting. More than suffering, the playing is altered, as the pianist leads the orchestra through his playing. Yet some people pull this off better than others.
I noted in the Philharmonic’s program booklet that the first performance of K. 453 by this orchestra took place on April 23, 1921. Erno Dohnanyi, known to us as a composer, play-conducted.
A language aside: When I was growing up, this composer was known as “Ernst von Dohnanyi”—but then it became cool to go Hungarian. Similarly, the great cellist was known as “Pablo Casals.” But then it became cool to go Catalan: “Pau.” Some of us never adjusted, in either case.
Anyway, I was a bit cross on Friday morning because I had to wait to hear Weilerstein play her Tchaikovsky. Not only would there be the Mozart concerto, there would be intermission.
For the Mozart, the orchestra onstage was a little one: a chamber orchestra. When they began, their sound was poor. It was not a “period” sound; it was just dry and unattractive. At the piano, Kahane tended to be more punchy than I would like. I prefer greater legato. Yet his crispness was welcome, and so was his confidence. Confidence in your approach—or “conviction,” you could call it—goes a long way in music-making.
Like all “play-conductors,” Kahane conducted with his head, his shoulders, and his playing. The sound of the orchestra got better, especially when louder.
Kahane’s dynamics were attentive and effective. He also employed a Mozartean verve. The cadenza in the first movement was colorful, characterful, and (mainly) accurate.
Let me point out that he ended the last note of this first movement in just the right place. Too many let it linger, sloppily.
In the middle movement, Andante cantabile, Kahane established a good tempo, but the orchestra had no warmth. Soon, however, the woodwinds were singing, and singing very well: Liang Wang (oboe), Robert Langevin (flute), and Judith LeClair (bassoon). At the piano, Kahane made a fat, Rubinstein-like sound. I prefer something more limpid. But that fat sound is commendable.
Kahane shaped this movement superbly—every section of it. Mozart’s sudden introduction of D minor was stunning. You did not see or hear Kahane shape the music, at any point—which is what made the shaping superb.
There is a mattress slogan that goes “Just the right sink, just the right bounce.” I thought of this when Kahane began the final movement. It had just the right lilt, just the right bounce. The right tempo, too. Kahane did not forget the “etto” in “Allegretto.” The music was not too fast. Once more, the woodwinds sang felicitously, and so did the pianist. When the music shifted into Presto—and got all Turkish—it was sheer joy. There were smiles around the auditorium.
In all my years of hearing this Mozart masterpiece, I have never heard a better performance. Like I was saying, I went to David Geffen Hall on Friday morning to hear Jeffrey Kahane play-conduct K. 453.
After intermission, Alisa Weilerstein came out in bare shoulders and bare arms. The temperature outside was 10 degrees. The sacrifices one makes for art . . .
Obviously, she played well. How can she not? Tchaikovsky’s work has elements of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic, and those were reflected in her playing. She did not handle the music daintily. She made bold, rich sounds. She was not at her most accurate, but any mistakes mattered little.
Like his hero Mozart, Tchaikovsky loved woodwinds, and Anthony McGill came through for him, playing beautiful, and insinuatingly beautiful, phrases on his clarinet.
When it comes to the Rococo Variations, we all wait for the final variation and coda. That is the payoff. Weilerstein took it very, very fast. It was all that Kahane could do to hold the music together. The payoff was a letdown, I’m afraid. It was unexciting, messy, and without charm.
But I look forward to Weilerstein’s next appearance, and to Kahane’s.