In the swim

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 14, 2009

Benjamin Zander was clearly excited about his Boston Philharmonic Brahms Violin Concerto with the multi-prize-winning 28-year-old Chinese violinist Feng Ning. And he was excited about his own new approach to the concerto: keeping each movement, as written, to a single tempo, with no slowing down for sadness or speeding up for joy. This was a streamlined and riveting performance, and Ning is generous with his virtuosity. But his new 2007 German violin sounded strained, and his performance lacked the intricate “speaking” inflections that give this grand concerto its moments of intimacy. (You could hear those in Peggy Pearson’s slow-movement oboe solo.) Everything was announced, declaimed; nothing was whispered — or questioned. Isn’t there more to the story of this concerto than tempos? Ning was called back for an encore, and in an impossibly difficult transcription of Tárrega’s famous guitar piece, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, his delicacy equaled his virtuosity. The big Dvorák Seventh Symphony that followed was rougher but more flexible and engaging.

I also got to the live HD telecast of the notorious new Met Tosca that got booed opening night. Well, there was a naked prostitute, a simulated blow job, and a nude painting that Tosca slashes in a fit of jealousy (none of this in Puccini), and some crucial stage directions were ignored. In a stop-action trick, we saw Tosca taking a flying leap off the Castel Sant’Angelo. Yet rather than revitalizing a warhorse, most of the production seemed dated, with silent-movie overacting. And without James Levine conducting, this “shabby little shocker” suffered from a shocking lack of tension.

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