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Team player and star soloist: Emanuel Ax.

A A Little Night Music
By B.A. Nilsson

Saratoga Chamber Music Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 3

Arnold Schoenberg himself suggested that his tone-poem Transfigured Night, a lush, emotionally varied work for string sextet, could be just as effective without any knowledge of the verse that inspired it.

Heís right, of course; any truly worthy piece of music works completely in the abstract, achieving access to the listeners emotions with a directness shared by no other art form. But how richer we are to know in advance the pictures that inspired Mussorgskyís most famous work, or the shenanigans limned in Straussís Till Eulenspiegel!

Transfigured Night, one of the works in the opening concert of this summerís Saratoga Chamber Music Festival season, was inspired by Richard Dehmelís brief, haunting poem about a couple whose moonlit walk turns sour when the woman reveals that sheís carrying another manís child. Their reconciliationóthe transfigurationóis prompted by the manís loving acceptance of the woman and her child, which thus will become his child.

As a musical journey, the work packs into a half-hour the kind of emotional vicissitudes you typically feel staying up all night. Itís hard to explain what youíve been through, yet sunrise prompts a sense of rebirth. The music surges and retreats, with a climax so suggestive ofówell, a climax, that you easily could infer that this reconciliation was partly achieved through a most intimate coupling not spelled out in Dehmelís verse.

Itís Brahmsian stuff, as the composer acknowledged, and, performed in this concert on the heels of a late piece by Richard Strauss, you can hear where Schoenberg also could have gone in that direction.

The magic of the work is self-contained, and needs nothing wrung out of its interpretation, something clearly understood by the players. What they gave it was technical excellence and an intuitive sense of rapport. Thatís something you expect at this festival, especially given the fact that most of the players are members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and thus already enjoy a close musical relationship, but thrown onto the intimate canvas of chamber music, itís an even more breathtaking phenomenon.

Omitted from the program was the full roster of players, who were: Michael Ludwig and Jason De Pue, violinists; Anna Marie Ahn Petersen and Carrie Dennis, violists, and cellists John Koen and Ohad Bar-David.

We saw the same lineup in the opening work, Straussís prelude from the opera Capriccio, Op. 85, except that Festival artistic director Chantal Juillet was the first violinist. Where Transfigured Night is fervent, this brief piece is witty, taking fragmented thematic elements through impressive textural changes while remaining in Straussís unique harmonic voice.

The work is in rondo form, but the transitions to the contrasting sections played games with us, betokening great drama but delivering whipped cream. A terrific companion to the Schoenberg, it also set the mood for the big piece of the second half, Schubertís Trout Quintet.

Pianist Emanuel Ax, who would solo with the orchestra the following night, was at the keyboard; violinist Leonidas Kavakos, due to play the Berg concerto two nights later, played first violin; Juillet switched to viola, Koen was the cellist, and Harold Robinson played string bass.

Schubert begins the piece with a noble introduction, but then it sounds as if the piano needs to be coaxed into playing along with the first theme. This is characteristic of Schubertís wit, which is more refined than Mozartís but less subtle than Beethovenís. And thereís no more compelling tunesmith. Once that first movement gets rolling, with jaunty pizzicato from the bass, itís a heartbeat away from a lively jazz song.

The centerpiece of the work, of course, is the fourth movement, a set of variations on one of Schubertís most famous songs: ďDie Forelle,Ē a lovelorn look at a trout, complete with a rippling brook in the accompaniment.

We donít hear that brook until the final variation, which brings us to the finished form of the song; in the meantime, we get birdlike trills in the first variation, a legato theme for cello and bass in the third, and a storm in the fourthóvery much in keeping with recent weather patterns.

As one of the all-time great pieces of chamber music, this is a work of which I have many recordings and have seen performed many times, and I canít recall a finer or more exciting performance that this one. You were drawn in to such a point that you forgot anyone else was there, and yet you were aware that all were sharing in this once-in-a-lifetime event.

A Fabulous Night

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4

Surround yourself with too much music and you run the risk of overlooking the surprises. This is how I analyzed my reaction to pianist Emanuel Axís encore during last Wednesdayís opening night concert at SPAC. Sent back to the keyboard with an imperious gesture from conductor Charles Dutoit, Ax made the surprisingly contrasting choice of the Chopin Berceuse, which he played with such understated delicacy that it roared with emotion and I found myself moved to tears, which I havenít had as a concert reaction in a very long time.

It was the Mozart concerto that did it. The Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major seems to be the least performed of the composerís mature works in that form, but itís a stirring piece the opens with the kind of martial character usually placed in the key of E-flat major. Confounded expectations are part of Mozartís charm, and this concerto has more charm than an old-fashioned finishing school.

Although the Philadelphia Orchestraís forces were somewhat reduced, the number of players was still far greater than a truly Mozartean orchestra. Which didnít bother me in the least. I can look back to my early-music-listening years, which predate the original-instruments frenzy of the past few decades, and recall great satisfaction at Mozart symphonies as conducted by Reiner and piano concertos played by Casadesus.

Emanuel Ax played the Casadesus cadenza, so itís not surprising that his delicacy of touch recalled the extraordinary style of the older pianist. No crashing or pounding through the piece; just ripples.

Although the orchestral force was large, conductor Charles Dutoit kept the dynamics just where they needed to be to complement the sound of the solo instrument; the fact that there were so many players added a wonderful richness to the timbre.

The orchestra was back to full strength for the second half of the concert, which comprised a single work: Mahlerís Symphony No. 1, written a century after Mozartís concerto. Mahler was out to make his name as a symphonist, and did it with a bang. The hour-long piece travels a fantastically varied orchestral canvas, beginning with what might as well be the worldís awakening and finishing in fortississimo triumph.

Mahler himself called the work a tone-poem and titled it ďThe Titan,Ē and explains the first movement as springís awakening after a long winter. Off-tempo birdsong over rumblings in the bass usher in a dreamy dance that soon turns, so characteristically of Mahler, into a frenzy, and thus does the work waltz us through contrast after contrast.

There are the usual lšndler, sounding like drunken peasants dancing, and thereís a bizarre third movement based on an old sardonic fairy-tale portrait of a hunterís funeral, giving us a childrenís nursery canon rendered in a minor key that also is interrupted by mad dance music.

You have to surrender yourself to this piece, and Dutoit and the orchestra made it simple. Recent interpreters canít seem to round an emotional corner without aggressively altering tempo, unlacing the work with portamento that really isnít necessary; Dutoit, however, stayed the course and let the music do the work for him. By the time the 20-minute-long final movement reached its enormous climax, with the entire French horn section on its feet, we were goners. Brilliant, memorable stuff that Iíll replay in my head for a long time to come.

Before the concert began, cellist Robert Cafaro, an area native, noted the recent death of local concert enthusiast Jack Sheehan, a man who never seemed to miss an event (and whom I always enjoyed discussing those concerts with), and whose overhead applause style made him singularly memorable. Eschewing the traditional moment of silence, Cafaro asked the audience to applaud, and they did soóall in Jackís trademark manner. It was a fitting tribute to a man who will be sorely missed and impossible to replace.

óB.A. Nilsson

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