November 28, 2008
Komische Oper Berlin

Cowboys and Bank Officials

The 3rd Symphony Concert of the Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin


Leonard Bernstein
Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony No. 9 in e minor, From the New World


Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Carl St. Clair - Conductor
Benjamin Pasternack - Piano

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Cowboys and Bank Officials

The 3rd Symphony Concert of the Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin

by Paul Moor

Carl St. Clair

The Komische Oper, this music-mad city's youngest and friskiest of our three full-time major opera houses, has a new Generalmusikdirektor, Carl St. Clair, with a background exotic even for cosmopolitan, polyglot post-reunification Berlin. A wide space in the road south of Big D (a.k.a. Dallas) proudly claims him as a native son, and the Berlin press reacted galvanically to the magic word TEXAS in his appointment's announcement, for the media, predictably, found the Lone Star State more newsworthy than his previous gig — also in Germany, as GMD of the important provincial Opera in Weimar, where his accomplishment reached a heady climax with a well-received Wagnerian Ring. Even greater delight greeted the immediate widespread circulation of the nickname that Leonard Bernstein, the most illustrious of his teachers, had automatically laid on him: Cowboy. By way of introducing himself to Berliners, St. Clair had earlier dipped a toe into the conducting waters with less than full-scale concert appearances, but recently he gave us a memorable blockbuster evening that juxtaposed Bernstein's massive piano concerto masquerading as his Second Symphony, subtitled The Age of Anxiety (patterned of course upon W. H. Auden's long poem), plus a vivid realization of Dvorák's fully appropriate Symphony No. 9, better known for its subtitle From the New World.

As a conductor, Bernstein (like one of his mentors, Dimitri Mitropoulos) made a specialty of a few piano concertos he conducted from the keyboard. I strongly suspect that he had that in mind when he set about composing this symphony, but the flashy virtuoso part he interpolated for piano obbligato simply ran away with him, for nobody in his right mind would even dream of doing a conductor/soloist number with what it wound up turning into. (For the world premiere, which I attended in April 1949, Bernstein confided the piano part to old friend Lukas Foss, no mean conductor-pianist himself, but I recall Marc Blitzstein's regret that Bernstein hadn't enlisted that era's unrivalled superpianist Vladimir Horowitz, for the flash of the piano part would definitely have fit the Horowitz bill.)

Benjamin Pasternack

The piano part here got the spots knocked off it by Benjamin Pasternack, whose electrifying virtuosity left me feeling really out of touch because honesty compels me to confess that I'd never before heard of him. His performance sent me scurrying to Google — with results that left me even more sheepish, for his past accolades include first prize in Italy's major International Busoni Competition (the 40th, in 1989), when the top-echelon jury unanimously found him worthy of it. That coup brought him appearances in Portugal, France, Canada, Switzerland, and the USA, plus an entire tour of northern Italy. He seems to have made something of a specialty of this Bernstein barn-burner, for he's played it with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa at Bernstein's old Tanglewood stamping-ground (Ozawa used to say, "Koussy [i.e., Serge Koussevitzky, the BSO's longtime conductor] was Big Papa to Lenny, and Lenny was Big Papa to me"), plus further BSO tour appearances in Athens, Salzburg, and Paris.

For all that, the soloist by no means overshadowed the (unbooted) Texas cowboy undeniably in charge of the evening. In accord with a praiseworthy European tradition, the Berlin opera houses' pit orchestras (especially our Staatsoper's Staatskapelle, once the pride and joy of no less than Wilhelm Furtwängler) have a thoroughly justified status as independent symphony orchestras with annual concert series all their own. Heaven knows we've all heard this Dvorák lollipop often enough to know it virtually by heart, but St. Clair's realization of the dear old score reminded us of its extraordinarily melodious nature, in which the composer combined the folklore melos of his Czech homeland with that of the exotic USA, where he less than happily taught in New York for an acutely homesick period at least partially alleviated by his discovery of a Czech immigrant colony off in exotic Iowa.

In more ways than one, spectacled, lightly bearded, scholarly-looking Benjamin Pasternack reminds me of another pianist who repeatedly has impressed me inordinately, the Canadian-born Philadelphian Marc-André Hamelin. I hazard a guess that in both instances their unassuming physical appearances and modest, downright anti-flamboyant personal manners have militated against their becoming as celebrated as their playing deserves, for they both sit down at the keyboard resembling, say, bank officials and incongruously remain that way while the instrument from time to time fairly bursts into flame under their ministrations. For good measure, Pasternack rewarded us with not one encore but two, which the wildly enthusiastic audience categorically demanded, both of them his own transcriptions of orchestral bits from Bernstein stage works. If you share my previous ignorance of Benjamin Pasternack, I advise you to keep an eye out for his name from now on, and treat yourself to his outstanding pianism.