4/21 — Elgar and Holst – Carson Cooman

From the pre-printed color covers
of the program booklet, I noted that the famed British conductor Richard Hickox
was originally scheduled to conduct this “most British” of programs. That certainly explained the program choices a
bit better, but, as for me, I had jumped at the chance to see one of my
favorite conductors – Leonard Slatkin – in person.

Slatkin is best known
as an American music specialist, but he’s also highly regarded for his
interpretations of British music — making him a logical choice. The
evening showed just how well the PSO plays under the leadership of a
conductor. More regular and guest
conductors of this quality should be appearing with the ensemble – as
it makes
a tremendous difference in their playing.  Let’s hope we don’t have to
wait another five years to see Slatkin with the PSO — and next time,
hopefully he can bring some of the American music he loves. 

Seeing violinist Gil Shaham is
always a treat. I saw him first live in
person some ten years ago in Rochester, New
York where he played the Bartók second concerto in a
brilliant and revelatory performance. Hearing him in Elgar’s massive concerto showed the real range of his art
– as the piece sits in quite a different world from the Bartók.

The Planets is always an orchestral showpiece worth
hearing. Despite its great length (and
perhaps some overlong slow movements), it’s hard to beat the impact of the work
and the coloristic and harmonic palate that blends together Debussy, Mahler,
and Elgar into Holst’s own voice.

 One thing that has bothered me
since I started going to the PSO deserves mention, however. When will this unfortunate practice of
clapping between the movements of a multi-movement work stop? Yes, yes, I know that until the mid-20th
century, it was common practice for audiences to applaud between
movements. (Sometimes, if a movement
received a particularly large amount of applause, the conductor would repeat
that movement before going on to the other ones!) But, the death of that practice was a
move for the better – it lets the piece have the flow and pacing that the
composers intended in a multi-movement work shine through, and it allows the orchestra
musicians to stay in the focus of a piece.

This problem was especially
heinous during the Elgar when, after the applause following the first movement,
PSO ushers began seating large numbers of audiences members, causing Slatkin to
hold the start of the second movement until they were all seated. For almost two minutes he stood there,
watching the door, waiting. The
tightness and unity of the work is lost when this happens.

Mendelssohn had it right. He hated the practice of applause between
movements so much that he wrote his famous Violin
Concerto in E minor
without any break – to avoid any premature clapping.

The PSO’s own “questions” section
at the end of the program does acknowledge that it “in a multi-movement work,
it is customary to wait until the end of the last movement to applaud, so as
not to break the concentration of the performers.”

Let’s bring back this common custom to Pittsburgh. We have a world-class orchestra, and we need
to regain some world-class concert etiquette to go with it.

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