Conductor Neale Puts Music in Motion
December 15, 2001
By James Ross
Just once, I heard Igor Stravinsky conduct his music. It was the Pulcinella Suite Alasdair Neale chose for his Thursday night concert with the New World Symphony at the Lincoln Theatre—an alluring Stravinsky/Mozart bill that will be repeated there tonight.
My night with Stravinsky, in 1965, had the fragile but agile composer, not a great conductor, nevertheless coaxing his 1920s score from the willing Chicago Symphony with darting movements and spidery hands. He looked like his music, and his quick, precise motions turned his slight body into the emotion he wanted the sound to express. Neale extracted Pulcinella from the New World with slightly more motion, but not much. His performance highlighted the music's tart verticality, its Pergolesi melodies Stravinsky admiringly adapted, and the musicians caught the jaunty, caustic wit, the buffoonery and the glitter. It was brisk, mostly brilliant, with that piquantly derisive trombone.
The Symphony in Three Movements, the other Stravinsky endpiece (framing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major and the Haffner Symphony, No. 35, in the same key) is much later Stravinsky, written for the New York Philharmonic in 1945. It is strikingly alive, bristling with activity, glistening with an angular brilliance, unmistakably The Rite of Spring revisited.
Neale's performance was one of the most supercharged, clarifying interpretations of the piece I've encountered. He boldly stressed the blocklike planes of sound on which it is built and there was tremendous rhythmic punch. Yet he left plenty of air and space for the harp, flute and clarinets to muse in the andante interlude.
Mozart was also extremely well-treated. The fourth of his five violin concertos tossed off at Salzburg when he was less than 20, was played with consummate courtliness by Cho-Liang ("Jimmy") Lin who had just the right resilience, grace and flair.
But the Haffner to me was the evening's peak, and demonstrated that Neale, rather than being a showy conductor, is, refreshingly, one who likes to show off the music. He has the gift of making you seem to hear a familiar score for the first time. His Haffner was dramatic, fast-paced, darkly brusque—a little like a cold, fresh wind blowing in your face. There wasn't a dead spot in it and lots of lustrous string and woodwind work.