An Early 20th Century Concert from David Robertson and the New York Philharmonic

This week's subscription series at the NY Philharmonic focused on central and eastern Europe in the early 20th century: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 (1924-25), Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead" (1909), and Schoenberg's "Erwartung" (also 1909).  There was also a thematic tie in the second half, with both pieces relating to death and loss as a theme.

This program was not on my subscription series.  In recent seasons, the Philharmonic's seat-filling and audience-building efforts have included sending letters to subscribers offering discounts for them to invite friends to attend concerts on their series.  A friend subscribes to this series and sent me the letter.  They try to sit the friends near each other.  My friend's subscription is the in rear orchestra, stage left, so that's where I was sitting, Row JJ. 

This brought forcibly home to me some of the deficits of Avery Fisher Hall as a place to listen to symphonic music.  My normal subscription seat, achieved a few years after moving to NY after some moving around and experimenting, gives me decent sound, reasonably present and full, albeit at the cost of losing a bit of the stage view – 2nd Tier Box 4.  But sitting out in Row JJ I would characterize as akin to viewing a baseball game from the left center field bleachers. Even with opera glasses the folks on the stage look small, and the sound is distant, lacking in richness; balances and ensemble feeling a bit skewed as the instruments are projecting in different directions and due to the unfortunate shape of this hall, not reflecting back in a focused way.  In other words, each of the musical compositions on the program was adversely affected in some way by the acoustic effect when heard in that location.

That said, Robertson and the Philharmonic seemed to be doing a fine job all evening.  The Shostakovich was alert if a bit poker-faced.  The Rachmaninoff was not as ruminative and laid-back as I've experienced in some of the leading recordings, but made a staggering impact in Robertson's passionate presentation.  In both cases, the lack of depth in the string sound from where I sat was unfortunate, undermining the romantic beauty of Shostakovich's 3rd movement and sapping the Rachmaninoff of some of its sonic glory.  Some of the big explosive portions of both pieces felt like a sonic muddle from where I sat, brass and percussion blatting out the strings.

And then there is Erwartung.  I have an adverse history with this piece.  I first experienced it at the Metropolitan Opera long ago, with Jessye Norman and James Levine in what, for the Met, seemed almost a semi-staged performance.  At the time, I really detested it.  But that was years ago, and I had not yet developed a taste for Schoenberg's music.  At the time I had acquired a recording in order to prepare (this was prior to Met titles, so one had to study the piece in advance in order to understand what was going on).  I had the Silja-Dohnanyi/Vienna Philharmonic recording (Erwartung was "filler" for Berg's "Wozzeck") and I also detested the recording at that time.  The upshot was that I hadn't listened to a recording of the piece since then, even though I acquired the Dow/Mitropoulos/NYP recording as part of the SONY historic reissue series as they came out – I just hadn't listened to it.  So I decided to listen to the Silja recording yesterday afternoon in preparation for the concert, and I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it.  Over the intervening years I have become much more comfortable with Schoenberg's idiom, and, after all, it is early Schoenberg, far from the more arid style he cultivated during the interwar period.

So, last night we had Deborah Voigt singing this psychologically fraught mono-drama, and I though she was generally splendid, from what I could hear.  Again, my location was a drawback.  From Row JJ, the brass and woodwinds tend to overbalance the strings, and this was a problem at times with the singer as well.  Also, some of that lush string sound that ended up captivating me on the Silja recording (a very good stereo production by Decca of the Vienna Philharmonic in the days of its sonic glory) was quite missing last night, given my location.  I'd be interested in whether somebody sitting in one of the hall's few sweet spots might have a different reaction.  Certainly Robertson gave a dramatic rendition of the orchestra part.  And now I could kick myself for having let my history with this piece stop me from attending the City Opera's presentation earlier this season, since it would have been interesting to see it staged, and in light of City Opera's travails, who knows whether they will ever present it again?

Another random reaction to last night's concert.  The Philharmonic sounded a little tired to me.  I thought their planning this season was a bit off.  They inserted a European tour into the schedule during May, as a result of which they extended the regular subscription season through the last weekend in June and decided to truncate Summertime Classics to two programs (six concerts) crammed into the very end of the month and beginning of July before they head off for their summer gig in Vail.  I think these musicians are a bit exhausted and could have used a mid-June break.  Some of the ensemble seemed a bit loose-knit for the Philharmonic – again, this could partly be where I was sitting.  Perhaps there is a lesson here about scheduling.

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