David Aaron Carpenter, NSO take on Schnittke viola concerto

May 4, 2013

The National Symphony Orchestra had to split time between soloists this weekend, with Alisa Weilerstein yielding to violist David Aaron Carpenter on Friday night so that he and the orchestra could have a run-through of their Carnegie Hall program coming up this Saturday.

I don’t really get the need for yet another “Tribute to Slava” — a program of works by three Soviet-era composers close to former NSO music director Mstislav Rostropovich.

Rostropovich died six years ago, and no performing artist was more feted or honored during his lifetime. NSO appearances in the fabled Carnegie Hall are rare opportunities, and a program that suggests the orchestra is still stuck in the past is both a dubious public relations move and a feeble endorsement of its current music director, Christoph Eschenbach. And how many times a year does New York need to hear the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony?

Be that as it may, Friday night’s concert was memorable for the scenery-chewing debut of Carpenter in the viola concerto by Alfred Schnittke.

Carpenter is a tall, slinky player who has absorbed, perhaps too well, the lessons of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Lang-Lang, Joshua Bell and others: that the public responds to overt physicality and emoting onstage.

Granted, some visuals can help engage audiences in harshly dissonant music. And I’ve seldom seen anyone so convincingly “inhabit” such a grim, challenging score, feeling every gesture. But the gyrations, the waltzing in place, the tortured back-bends — especially on high notes — and the grimacing quickly became too much.

As with most of Schnittke’s works, the concerto is a mash-up of found objects near and far: brutal quarter-tone passages, a baroque cadential figure, a wrong-note polka, a solemn Mahler brass chorale, a deranged waltz and a passage that sounded like Schubert on acid.

Carpenter and Eschenbach (who have recorded the work together) did everything possible to make it cohere, and perhaps some actually heard the “wrenching existential drama” the piece is about (according to the program notes).

The brief curtain-raiser, “Slava, Slava” by Rodion Schedrin, is noisy, blowsy and simplistic, but rousing in its way, serving up a hymn-like tune with copious helpings of bells, chimes, bell plates and other ringing percussion.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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