Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Twist and Shout

March 27, 2011

Conductor Kurt Masur

This weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic program saw the combination of one of its more frequent guests, violinist Sarah Chang, and a face that hasn’t been around these parts in quite awhile, conductor Kurt Masur. Now at 83, Masur has been spending the spring headlining with a number of American orchestras, and his visit here had been rumbled about given the long repeated rumors of conflicts with current Los Angeles Philharmonic president Deborah Borda when the pair were in leadership positions with the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s. There were certainly no interpersonal fireworks I could appreciate on Saturday when I saw Masur lead the orchestra in a program that included Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture, Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. Things started stoically with the Mendelssohn. It was a professional performance with Masur making relatively few gestures while conducting and those he did seemed burdened, requiring excessive effort.

And speaking of burdened and excessive effort, enter Sarah Chang for the Brahms. She assaulted the concerto with a fervor that was not without its virtuosity but wanted for a more lyrical sense and flow. Of course, with Chang you always get the bonus of a floor show. When things get intense, she starts stomping and kicking around the stage like an extra in a Li'l Abner revival. Of course, if you weren’t going to get stomped on, there was always the chance you might get nailed by Chang’s bow which she wielded like an épée at times after completing her solo passages. And while it may be unfair to focus here on the physical mannerisms of her stage presence, in the end they do add to the sensation of her playing being somewhat labored as if she is physically struggling like some grand slam tennis player. The energy seems to go everywhere, and not necessarily always focused on the music. The Brahms sounded like a chore.

The evening concluded with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, which provided a pleasant turn of events. After what seemed like another stiff opening, suddenly a switch flipped in the second movement and all the built up tension suddenly escaped. The players smiled and looked at one another, moving with the music in a more relaxed way. The romantic and evocative whorls of the third and fourth movement were warm and filled with a sense of camaraderie and the orchestra sounded assured and sizable throughout the remainder of the night. And while Masur may not have been bouncing around the stage while all this was going on, he did manage to lead the orchestra in a very heartfelt and wise performance of the Dvořák symphony. It took a little bit, but everybody finally got where they were going.



Saw Sunday's performance, and your description of Chang's Brahms is perfect.
As to Masur's Dvorak, ours seemed like everyone was glad it was the final performance. Still an enjoyable symphony and it was played very nicely.
Did you notice the tremor in Masur's left hand when it was not waiving about? Some kind of health issue there, yet at 83....
A "tremor"? Are you kidding? Sorry for being frank but to me it looked like a full-blown Parkinson's kind of constant uncontrollable violent shaking which made following him extremely difficult for the orchestra. Very sad... He really shouldn't conduct anymore because he is physically unable to lead.
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