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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Deadly Sins

From the Vault Dept.: Itzhak Perlman comes to Schenectady’s Proctors Theater on Saturday, which prompted me to check the archives for previous archives. Here’s one from 2004. Below, you’ll find my account of a concert that took place a deecade before that.

                                                                                              

THE CROWD PLEASER – and crowd puller – of the evening was Itzhak Perlman, who played the violin concerto by Brahms. No doubt the idea is to lure the gamblers from horses to warhorses. Charles Dutoit conducted the orchestra, and they did a gorgeous job, making the most of the shimmering textures of Brahms’s orchestration.

Itzhak Perlman
Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Perlman is certainly on familiar ground here, and, except for some arrhythmic passagework, had no trouble with the piece. But he had nothing new to add to it, and teetered on the brink of boredom. No exploration, no risk taking. There has to be a reason besides sheer familiarity to drag a piece like this out of the repertory year after year, and competence alone isn’t enough. That’s when it becomes the concertgoing equivalent of listening to a recording – which similarity was heightened by the miking of Perlman’s violin, fed through the main amphitheater speaker. Lawn auditors need it, of course, but can’t we have natural sound in the theater itself? The ongoing encroachment of electronics is unfortunate.

Amplification was understandably needed in “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which comprised most of the first half. This was the last collaboration between composer Kurt Weill and librettist Bertold Brecht, written in Paris in 1933, but the music is much more lyrical than their earlier pieces while still sporting a sardonic, punchy edge.

And Brecht’s story is very biting, although we weren’t permitted to know about it because it was sung in German and translations weren’t available. But why bother with the German in the first place? The original language is fine in the case of certain songs, where the words-and-music marriage is a vital part of the work, but a theatrical piece needs to be understandable as it occurs, and translations and supertitles fail to provide that.

So we’re imprisoned by this peculiar conceit among concert snobs. Not only is the piece itself inaccessible, but audience and critics are too intimidated by the snob factor to complain. I nominate that as the eighth deadly sin, and Dutoit et. al. stand accused. Had they done some research, they would have discovered a very singable English version co-authored by W.H. Auden.

Soprano Angelina Réaux gave a wonderfully theatrical performance as Anna, adding what I assume were appropriate movements and gestures to an already splendid voice. The story takes her from her home in Louisiana through seven American cities representing the various sins. Boston, for example, is the setting for lust, Los Angeles for anger, and Philadelphia for gluttony (Brecht obviously never sampled a Philly cheese steak sandwich).

A male quartet from the group Hudson Shad sang the parts of Anna’s family; Weill assigned the bass to sing Anna’s mother, and Wilbur Pauley amusingly carried a handbag to underscore that point. Tenors Mark Bleeke and Hugo Munday and baritone Peter Becker sang the part of Anna’s father and two brothers, which often called for close-harmony work at which this group excels (and emphasized in an encore, a wordless, a cappella “Creole Love Call” by Duke Ellington).

The purist spirit that required a German text for “Sins” obviously didn’t prevail in the opening work. Leopold Stokowski arranged Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor back in the ’20s for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and championed this and other such arrangements despite the outcry of Bach snobs. The orchestra still has lots of fun with the piece and plays it well. Snobs be damned.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor
Itzhak Perlman, violinist
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 10

Metroland Magazine, 18 August 1994

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