A Celebration of Korngold’s Music
The following review by one of this website’s early editors appeared shortly after the April 2001 performances in New York City of Korngold’s Violin Concerto and his opera Die tote Stadt. These events were part of a larger celebration of his music held across the city that spring. Additional details appear after Bob Glaser’s original review below.
Reviews for “Die tote Stadt” and Violin Concerto
: Mr Bob Glaser (former-editor)
I was fortunate to have experienced an ‘All Korngold’ weekend on the weekend of April 20-22. This consisted of attending a Friday evening dress rehearsal of the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra performing Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Reiko Watanabe as the soloist. This was followed by a Saturday matinee performance of Die Tote Stadt at the New York City Opera. Following on Sunday with the performance of Violin Concerto previously mentioned.
I shall start by reviewing the opera performance. I have seen this production before at the NYCO in the New York State Theater, the last time it was being performed in the early 1990’s. That performance left much to be desired but I was thrilled to hear a live performance of this rarely performed (in the US) gem.
The current performance was superior on almost every level. I found the soloists all capable in vocal strength as well as technical and artistic ability to handle all of the lead roles. A surprise was Lori-Kaye Miller who sang the role of Briggita as a substitute for Eugenie Grunewald. As a debut artist at the NYCO Eugenie Grunewald had the type of voice and ability that may, one day, lead to great acclaim. Significantly both John Horton Murray as Paul and Lauren Flanigan as Marietta/Marie were up to the task and were never lost beneath Korngold’s orchestrations. Lori-Kaye Miller’s performance of Marietta was a little inconsistent from an acting standpoint but based on the majority of the performance it may have been a problem of direction and not acting. Specifically, her entrance in the first act should have been a great flourish or at least more of a flourish in keeping with the music. Instead, she walked in with the slow solemn gait of a bride on her way to the alter.
Mel Ulrich who sang the role of Fritz/Pierrot was also well recieved by the house after his solo in the second act. His voice was strong and mellow and brought pathos to the aria without broaching on parody. Although I might have preferred a little more passion here, it would be minimal and he did sing with a beauty that made the aria quite enjoyable.
The first of two other complaints about this performance were first the cuts made to shorten it. I have never been able to figure out the rationale for these since the opera is only shortened by 15 or so minutes (almost 10 minutes of these cuts are in the first act). It seems unlikely that it was due to difficulty in the orchestral parts based on the specific cuts made nor would it be staging issue for the same reason. There is the possibility that it may have been less taxing on John Horton Murray as Paul but the power of this man’s voice seemed able to handle the part with seeming ease. Secondly I was somewhat annoyed with the slowness of some of the tempos taken. This was most noticeable in “Gluck das mir Verblieb.” Although beautifully performed, it dragged in a way that made you lean forward in your seat hoping to push it along. Maestro Manahan stated that he preferred the recording of Segerstam to Liensdorf and maybe that’s part of the reason. Segerstam made similar cuts and frequently took painfully slow tempos. Interestingly Liensdorf tempos were still in places slower that Korngold himself had specified. If you listen to Korngold conducting any of his own works (not just the film music), you will see that he maintained quite a brisk pace compared to most of today’s (and recent yesterdays) conductors.
All of this notwithstanding, Maestro Manahan managed to maintain a well balanced and unified ensemble in the NYCO Orchestra. I have not heard them play better. Detail, subtlety as well as power and grandeur were not lost in this conductors control or for that matter the orchestra’s performance.
A note on the stage design which has been around since 1975. The stage is set in a moderately minimal fashion. Window Frames, a few pieces of furniture, or a boat to indicate being on a quai. The rest is done with projections on a scrim and the wall behind. These slide projections are very effective when they are combined with suitable lighting and occasionally used fog effects. The there are two aspects of this production however that need to be mentioned. In the preludes to the second and more so the third acts, movie projections are used and these are both out of place with the story and in the third act prelude, they are laughable. The comments I heard around me attest to that. Additionally, I was seated for this performance in the first ring and almost dead center. The previous performance I attended I was seated also in the first ring but significantly to the left. From a skewed vantage point the projections tend to lose much of their effect and tend to become far less integrated with the physical set.
Do not presume that these problems or discrepancies were significant enough ruin a performance. They were merely minor distractions to a great performance.
Next came the performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto by the Greenwich Symphony conducted by David Gilbert with Reiko Watanabe as soloist. This was also a nice experience. As the soloist, Ms. Watanabe played with great technical skill. Some of the playing I would consider of more technical skill than heart. In a work as lyrical in its late romantic ways as this, a delicate balance of skill and passion are important to the performance. In the first movement her restraint showed off the music well. The more flowing lines of this movement were subtley handled and the more difficult passages were transitioned to nicely.
The second movement was a little more problematic. Not flawed but rather executed with more efficiency than romanticism. This is not to imply that she rushed through it so much as just ‘played’ it. I will say that she played the mysterioso sections with a feeling that showed that she knew the intention of the score. I thought it interesting that she played one small passage in the middle of the movement in artificial harmonics – which appear on no version of the score that I have ever seen. I’m not sure what the reason that this was done. I’ll leave that up to the reader to guess. When it came to pure skill needed in the third movement, she soared. She bounced through this with all of the laughter and joviality required without ever losing momentum. This movement is one of my favorite ‘sections’ of Korngold’s music. I was not disappointed with her playing at all here.
As to the orchestra, they played far better than I had expected, considering the difficulty of the score. They may not have been ‘world class’ but then that designation is reserved rightfully to a few. They were up to the task and could easily challenge any of the larger city orchestras in the U.S. David Gilbert did a more than adequate job of maintaining the control of Korngold’s ‘built-in’ rubatos. His one failing was hiding the celesta part. Since this instrument was not only a favorite of Korngold’s it is used extensively throughout this concerto and frequently as a soloing instrument. Much of this was lost in this performance. I could not hear it at all even in those sections where I knew note for note what was being played. This was not an issue of being played over by other instruments, it was more a issue of the level the celesta was played and possibly its placement in the back of the orchestra (oddly by itself on the right – near the brass). This may seem like a trivial remark, but if you listen to most any recording of this concerto, you’ll realize its prominence in the orchestration. Other than this, the rest of the orchestra was well balanced particularly in reference to the brass and percussion sections. They played the mysterioso sections of the first and second movements with finesse and the great fanfare toward the last third of the third movement (this was the fanfare used to open the film The “Prince and the Pauper”) with a golden era bravado. All said, it was a memorable experience.
Many other events took place that spring: concerts, film screenings, recitals, lectures. Some of the details and related articles are referenced below.
Press Releases:
Museum of Modern Art
New York Times Reviews and Articles:
Sherman, Robert. “MUSIC; A Banquet For Lovers Of Violins.” 25 March 2001
Griffiths, Paul. “OPERA REVIEW; A Plot Seems to Vanish Behind Screens & Slides.” 17 April 2001
Holland, Bernard. “MUSIC; Must Sweet Always Yield To Sweat?” 29 April 2001
Websites and Other Articles:
Johnson, Lawrence A. “A Marvelous Marietta.” 2 May 2001 Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, FL
NPR review
Ronald Chase Opera (website)
Page last updated December 2013