Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Night at the Hall

Last night was spent in attendance at Carnegie Hall for an all Beethoven symphony program: Numbers 1, 8, and 5, performed by the Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra and lead by the maestro Daniel Barenboim.

The orchestra may not be a household name, only being in existence for 10 years, but it consists of young musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other Arab countries in the Middle East, with the goal of creating a peaceful dialogue between the cultures through music. It is one of several special projects developed by Mr. Barenboim, and in this case, Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said. All the Beethoven symphonies will be played in a series, through February 3rd.

Nice seats, dead center, 14 rows back. The place is filled, as expected, and the maestro emerges to join the approximately 110 musicians assembled on the stage, to a tee, all wearing black.

But his entrance is odd and awkward. He makes his way holding onto the back of chairs between a row of musicians, rather than coming out between the audience and the orchestra. He easily looks ten years older than someone born in 1942. He gets assistance to climb the two steps to the conductor's podium, firmly grabs the railing, and acknowledges the loud applause, eventually placing his right hand over his heart, in I guess a gesture of thanks and humility.

Great music emerges. No score to guide him, baton firmly in the right hand, with the left hand adding gestures, the maestro is in command, even if every so often he seems to pitch backward and grab the railing with his his left hand and steady himself for a few moments. How bad is the pain?

Numbers 1 and 8 are played. Intermission. Symphony No. 5 will be next.

Daniel Barenboim is an internationally acclaimed conductor. If he was from a United Kingdom country he'd be a Knight. But he's from Argentina, more known for its cattle, tango, political regimes, and Juan and Eva Peron. Of course, Argentina did foolishly once invade the British Falkland Islands off its coast, but Mr. Barenboim is music, not military.

Big B. emerges for No.5. Walking a little more briskly, still between rows of musicians, but less holding on. Conducting the piece vigorously, with not as many backward pitches to the rail. My mind starts to wander and wonder. What happened during the intermission? Beethoven is a pain killer? An injection was given? PED? Are we now looking at a conductor with No. 13 on his back? Is Alex Rodriguez waving a baton?

I also start to think of the NYT times sportswriter Ira Berkow, who somehow artfully inserted a narrative of concert double-base players sneaking out for some stiff ones until they were needed for the final movement.

No such absence here. All seven of them are still with us, even if they are near the exit, alertly looking for the maestro's cues.

In Berkow's telling, the conductor's score somehow gets stuck, or tied, and as he nears the end of the last movement of someone's Ninth symphony, the bassists return, but are drunk. The orchestra is in a fix. Dilemma time.

It's the bottom of the ninth, the bassists are loaded, and the score is tied.

Not so last night. If we were looking at a symphonic version of A-Rod, he would have struck out with his baton with the bassists loaded, and then needed hip surgery. But the Western-Eastern Divan orchestra bassists were sober, and there was no score in front of the maestro to get tied. Beethoven was the analgesic.

The final movement was built up as loud and beautiful as you could make it. The maestro's baton was stabbing the air for more effort, and getting it. The applause was done standing, thunderous, and was sustained, still going on even after I hit the head and was out on 56th Street.

I was anxious to get home and turn the sound up.

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