Interesting Program at the NY Philharmonic – Walton & Mussorgsky

Here's a combination one might not have anticipated: a program whose two centers of gravity were the Walton Violin Concerto and Maurice Ravel's orchestral arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's suite of piano pieces, "Pictures at an Exhibition."  On top of that, an interesting bit of "framing" – the program began with Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement of the prelude to Mussorgsky's unfinished opera, Khovanshchina, followed by the Walton, and after intermission, they began with Ravel's Pavane pour une Infante defunte (usually translated as Pavane for a Dead Princess) and concluded with "Pictures,"  which was conceived by Mussorgsky as a memorial to his friend, the architect and artist Victor Hartmann.

So, apart from the Walton, a bit of an outlier here, the program had interesting topical links running through it, emphasized even more in the program book by the historical account of Ravel's process of making his arrangement.  It seems that at the time he was doing this, the only version of Mussorgsky's piano piece available to him was the published arrangement by…. you guessed it, Rimsky-Korsakoff, who spent considerable time after Mussorgsky's early death in going through his manuscripts and arranging things for performance – correcting what Rimsky, the pedant, saw as technical errors and "crudeness" in the relatively unschooled Mussorgsky's work.  So, we really had two Mussorgsky-Rimsky works, two works that were arranged by hands other than the original composer's, two works with a "memorial theme", two works involving Mussorgsky, two works involving Ravel, two works implicating Rimsky-Korsakoff – the various underlying and overlapping themes here are quite interesting.

So, why the Walton Concerto?  Could it just be that this was what Gil Shaham, the evening's soloist, was interested in playing?  Shaham has his own record label.  Perhaps there is a signal here that we should be expecting his recording of the Walton Concerto soon?  It would certainly be welcome.  I thought Shaham was on great form last night – the third performance in this subscription week series – and his persuasive advocacy for a work that is not so well known is surely worth preserving.  The Philharmonic responded virtuosically to the demands of this not-so-familiar score.  (The program book indicated it was last played hereabouts in 2006 by James Ehnes.) 

Which brings us around to the conductor of the evening, Ludovic Morlot, a Frenchman whose made his reputation mainly in Europe but will be following Gerard Schwarz as music director of the Seattle Symphony beginning this September.  He's been a guest with the Philharmonic in the past, and also spent several years as an assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony, so he's not a totally unknown quantity here. 

I found much to admire in his work last night, but had some questions as well.  The opening Mussorgsky prelude was wonderfully atmospheric and very well played by the orchestra.  The Walton concerto was brilliantly done, and there seemed to be a good rapport between Morlot, Shaham and the orchestra.

But I was not so happy after the intermission. The Ravel Pavane began with a peculiarly-sounding horn solo.  Rather the pure, clear liquid tone one would want to hear in that opening solo, there was a brassy sort of quality with some swelling in the notes that seemed out of character for the piece, and then I had an uneasy feeling about phrasing and tempo, as if what should be a solemn dance pace was being broken up a bit too much with tempo modifications and pauses.  This concern continued for me in "Pictures".  Some balances seemed odd, there was some sloppiness and loose ensemble, and even one glaring wrong entry…  Perhaps again signs of the orchestral weariness I heard last week.  The regular subscription series is running a few weeks longer than usual due to the brief European tour in May.

I'm hoping Morlot is not going to fall in what I heard as the Maazel Syndrome.  That is, being a skillful technician on the podium, going overboard to superimpose a very personal point of view on the music that involves "breaking the line," changing the "normal" balances of instrumental parts, and imposing various conductorial conceits as if the purpose of playing the piece is to impress the audience with how original the conductor can be rather than trying to find the inner core of the music and project it effectively to the audience.  Of course, one could complain that there are many ways of experiencing the composer's message, and the conductor who – in my opinion, of course – is "distorting" the music in this way may in the eyes and ears of others be revealing important truths about the music.  Suffice to say that I think Morlot is an excellent podium technician, and the performance of the Walton shows that he can be a very persuasive advocate for a relatively unfamiliar mid-20th century piece that deserves to be played more often.  I just question some of his interpretive decisions in the Ravel Pavane and the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures. 

I wish him well in his new adventure in Seattle, where his arrival would appear to signify a major reorientation of focus for that orchestra.  Schwarz had a special mission to revive interest in the major American symphonies of the early 20th century, revivings symphonic works by Piston, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson and the like, and making a huge body of recordings of American symphony music with the Seattle Symphony.  One suspects that Morlot will not emphasize this repertory.  One hopes that Schwarz, who will continue as an emeritus presence with occasional guest appearances, will be sure that this music is still represented in Seattle's regular repertory. What I'm hoping is that the end of his directorship in Seattle means that we will be seeing him as a frequent guest conductor of the NYP (for whom he was once principal trumpet), which doesn't play enough of that repertory.  Bringing him back would be one way for us to hear it.  Alan Gilbert hasn't shown great interest in performing such music.

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