Gratitude for Being

NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County
The Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa
Friday, Oct. 21

I went to the OC Performing Arts Center with the subconscious, slightly insane notion that I could repeat the past. I was raised from the time I was 10 on violin concertos, you see, specifically those grand 19th-century heroic workhorses of the Romantic repertoire: the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, the Mendelssohn compositions so definitive, even for their composers, that each of them wrote only one. This was music so passionate, delicate and explosive that it basically taught me what it meant to have an alive, responsive heart: these concertos, in fact, had a way of demanding that you develop one if you were to have any chance of facing the music. And there was only one other concerto that did that for me then, and that was the Bruch. (Bruch wrote more than one violin concerto, but the one in D Minor, written in 1866, is what he's known for.) And so, 35 years on, violinist Nikolaj Znaider, backed by Washington, D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra, was putting on the Bruch at the OCPAC, and that's why I was there.

The National Symphony, directed by Leonard Slatkin, opened with Alan Hovhaness' Symphony #2 from 1955, which I thought was going to be some dissonant modernist exercise, but it turned out to be gorgeous, stately and graceful, the strings locking into tight, lilting harmonic structures, a little like Barber's Adagio for Strings without the orgasmic buildup. It was a marvelous prelude to Znaider, a tall, emotional young Polish-Israeli with short curly hair, a shiny red underlip and a red handkerchief poking out of his black outfit. Bruch clearly took him over—he swayed and sighed, and the sheer melodic abundance of the piece, by turns demanding dazzling technique (as in the third movement) and an exquisite tenderness of approach (as in the extraordinary, and beautifully extended, second movement) seemed to transform him.

I don't know a thing about Znaider, but he seemed born for the Bruch, balancing the concerto's passionately earthy beauties with a dignified restraint that recalled, if anything, Nietzsche's idea in The Birth of Tragedythat the best art comes from a poised standoff between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It was, in a word, perfect. Sometimes such moments come—the idealized past gets recalled, restored, validated. I felt, also, a little deranged—the Tchaikovsky symphony that followed hardly registered. I floated out afterward, wondering what to do with the beauty I'd heard: Outside of lovemaking, how do you follow up such an experience? You don't; but you do realize that the only attitude you can cop afterward is one the visionaries taught (Nietzsche among them), and which art keeps right on teaching: gratitude for being.

 
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