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Lang Lang and Van Zweden Regal Audiences at Philharmonic Opening Gala

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The Stage

by Lieba Nesis

“Let us be silent about this work! No matter how frequently heard, whether at home or in the concert hall, this symphony invariably wields its power over people of every age,” said composer Robert Schumann of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.  Beethoven’s state of mind during this composition was that of anguish and despondency.  His loss of hearing in 1802 had progressively worsened during the next six years leaving his career as a musician in doubt.  Moreover, in March 1808 a raging infection threatened the loss of his finger- a disaster for a composer attached to his keyboard.  Vienna, where he resided was equally chaotic with violence on the rise as Napoleon began his invasion in 1805.  Beethoven’s brother, Caspar Carl, who functioned as his secretary, left him in further disarray after getting married and leaving his employ.  The final insult was being rejected by a paramour Beethoven had declared his love for.  In 1808 Beethoven had moved to four different residences paradigmatic of the unsettling times he was experiencing.  He was even rejected by the Viennese Theatre when he applied for thepermanent composer position-without them even responding to his request.  Despite these tragedies he completed and premiered the Fifth Symphony in 1808 which was composed by Johann Reichardt at a disastrous four-hour concert where the frigid Vienna Concert House, which lacked heat, had Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz remarking it was “too much of a good thing”.

From that moment on, the most famous four notes in history are those that open Beethoven’s Fifth-a masterpiece that has been performed by the New York Philharmonic no less than 500 times.  The Fall Gala Concert of the New York Philharmonic which was held on October 7, 2019 at Lincoln Center paid homage to the magnificent Beethoven.  Recently, the ballet and opera have utilized gala premieres to feature less conventional compositions in order to “change it up.”  “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera House, “The Shaded Line” at the New York City Ballet opening are all indicative of this trend of steering away from typical offerings such as Madama Butterfly or Swan Lake.  I might be an iconoclast in this regard, but I love the classics, those that have proven over hundreds of years that they are unmatched in both talent and creativity.  And so Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major and Symphony No. 5 in C minor left me spellbound-experiencing one of the most sensational evenings in the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center.  The night began with a cocktail party where arts supporter Alec Baldwin handsomely donned a tuxedo despite missing his niece Hailey Bieber’s recent wedding in South Carolina.  The crowd was a bit more sedate than the usual gala audience.  These were the understated lovers of the arts who prefer to don a demure black dress rather than the opulent ball gowns of the recent season.  The program stated the concert would last for one hour and fifteen minutes without any intermission.  The short duration was unfortunate, as superstars Lang Lang and van Zweden left me in near tears with their dynamic performances.
Anyone who wrongly assumes that music is bland should have attended this concert.  Few nights come to memory where hours later my mind is playing back the performances of the evening with an excited vividness.  Lang Lang is undoubtedly a rock star in pianist’s clothing who has groupies from around the globe mimicking his clothing and hairstyles.  His performances are heartfelt-creating a confluence of movement, music and acting.  Akin to Beethoven, his story is not without personal triumph, as he experienced a near career ending injury to his left hand in 2017 while practicing Ravel’s left-hand concerto.  He reemerged in 2018 better than ever yet it was evident throughout his astounding performance that he was a bit more careful with his movements as he relied heavily on his right hand.  The crowd adores him and you could feel the disappointment when he concluded Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2  after 29 minutes with a lengthy ovation.  When he exited the stage there was a strange silence as the energy shifted from this virtuoso who had ignited the audience.  There were even a few concertgoers who left.  Thankfully, I was not amongst that group as Beethoven’s 5th proved even more exhilarating as conductor Jaap van Zweden nearly had me leaping out of my seat.  Zweden began his tenure as the 26th Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in September 2018 after having led the Hong Kong Philharmonic.  He has emerged as a superstar of epic proportions.  His movements were otherworldly as he gesticulated exuberantly throughout the half hour.  And then came the finale where his stick fell to the floor requiring him to conclude the last five minutes with nothing but his hands leading the phenomenal orchestra.  Was this more theater or did he actually lose control of his baton-hard to say yet I have rarely seen a more effectively enthralling moment.  The crowd concurred as a roar of approval greeted his exit-this man is an unstoppable dynamo that will undoubtedly draw new audiences to this normally staid art form.
Guests were still reveling in the unabashed performances of the past one-hour-and-a-half as Greg Kelly, John Paulson, Francine LeFrak and hundreds of others headed to the second floor of the David Koch Theatre for an elegant dinner.  The rain did not dissuade partygoers from crossing Lincoln Center as a beautiful evening awaited nearby.  I wondered if Beethoven or Mozart were ever feted at one of these galas the way van Zweden and Lang Lang were-or if their artistry was underappreciated during those highly tumultous times.

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