New York Philharmonic Summertime Classics – 2014 Edition

The vagaries of the NYP’s schedule limited this year’s edition of Summertime Classics to just two programs performed within the space of one week.  Between the spring tour and the return of the NYC parks concerts, no more time could be spared.  That was a pity, because this is a wonderful format for conductor Bramwell Tobey and those members of the Philharmonic (plus substitutes) who gathered to present two strong programs with great enthusiasm, albeit less polish than might have been achieved with more rehearsal time.

For some reason they decided to make the first program all-Russian, the second being the Independence-Day-Weekend all American-fare one would expect.  Shostakovich’s noisy and tuneful Festive Overture launched the proceedings with appropriate fanfare.  Joyce Yang provided an extroverted essay of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, followed after intermission by Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (Rimsky-Korsakoff version), Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, and Tchaikovsky’s Walt of the Flowers (from the Nutcracker Ballet) and Marche slave.  The interpretations were not particularly subtle, the sound level was rather higher than one might hear during the regular subscription season when more rehearsing would be able to achieve more subtlety, but accuracy was good and enthusiasm was high.  I find Rach 1 the least persuasive of his concerti.  It originated as a student work (1890-91), which the composer revised extensively (1917), but the extended first movement does not hold together very well, and the finale is curiously restrained. The slower middle movement has the best music.  Of all the composer’s works for piano and orchestra, it’s the one I would be least interested in hearing, but I thought Yang and Tovey did the best that could be done for it.  (Certainly better than some prior renditions I’ve heard.)

As usual they invited one of the military service bands to participate in the Independent Day Weekend Program, which was titled Star-Spangled Celebration.  This time it was the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, last heard from in these parts in 2007.  This is really an ensemble constructed for outdoor performance on the parade ground, it its agglomeration of bugles (soprano, mellophone, baritone, euphonium, contrabass) and percussion (17 players – two on xylophone and all the rest knocking drums and cymbals of various sizes) was really just too loud for Avery Fisher Hall, where the sound is already too brash to begin with.  The sheer noise level of the percussion was so high that they practically drowned out the music – even from this huge brass contingent – during some of their numbers, but their “spit and polish” surely amused the audience, which tittered every time the conductor raised his baton to start a piece and the instrumentalists jerked their instruments into playing position in practiced unison.  The first half of the concert presented just the NYP musicians, beginning with Arturo Toscanini’s recently resuscitated arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a medley of tunes from Gershwin’s show Strike Up the Band, and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.  Mark Nuccio, the NYP’s Associate Principal, was the stellar performer in the Concerto, which struck a nice note of lyrical restraint in the midst of a super-noisy program.

As usual in these proceedings, there was the “Armed Services Salute” during which the combined musical forces, led by Major Brian Dix, performed a medley of the motto tunes of the various U.S. Armed Forces and veterans or current members in the audience stood in turn to be acknowledged, a nice July 4 touch.

And, as usual, some of the best music on the program was by John Phillip Sousa, from whom we heard The Washington Post March, Semper Fidelis, and The Stars and Stripes Forever.  Stars and Stripes gets played twice at these affairs: first conducted by Tovey, then conducted by the director of the military service band with Tovey sitting in with a euphonium in the brass section.

Tovey is an exciting conductor who likes to explore unusual repertory. Would that the Philharmonic would give him more of an opportunity to do so.  I remember when these concerts were first started there were more programs and Tovey was permitted to play more unusual repertory.  The idea, as he said in the program notes and again from the stage, was to present things that are not usually performed at Philharmonic programs.  But the Russian program was composed entirely of music that the NYP has actually played in the recent past, as were the Copland pieces on the second program.  My sense from attending over the years is that management has been restraining him a bit, and perhaps the difficulties imposed by the shorter rehearsal time for these concerts (two different programs prepared within one week, since the NYP’s subscription season ended only the week before with no real break in between) also incentivize against trying anything too challenging to put together.

Ideally, the Summertime Classics should last for at least two weeks, with three different programs spaced out enough for adequate rehearsal.  This is especially important because most of the Philharmonic’s principal players don’t participate and there is more than the usual presence of “substitutes” sitting in, so more rather than less rehearsal would probably be ideal.  That said, however, this year’s rendition was well-played and enjoyable and did a reasonably good job of filling the hall for the hiatus between the end of the subscription season and the launch of the parks concerts.

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