NY Philharmonic: Out With a Bang and a Shriek

The New York Philharmonic ended its regular subscription season last night with the last of three performances of a show conceived by Doug Fitch (Director/Designer), using music mainly by Igor Stravinsky to accompany a production titled “A Dancer’s Dream.”  Several rows of seats were removed from the front of the orchestra section to accommodate an extended stage, where dancers and various technical assistants would use lighting, cameras, costumes, miniature toys projected on a big screen, and other devices to create the magical world of “Petrouchka,” Stravinsky’s puppet ballet.  But that was the second half of the program.  The first half, much less enlivening and a bit of a strain on the attention of the audience, used the equally lengthy (but much less popular or familiar) Stravinsky ballet music for  “The Fairy’s Kiss” to suggest a dreamlike world in which a member of the audience gradually transforms herself into a prima ballerina, fit to portray Columbine in Petrouchka.

Or that’s what seemed to be going on.  Whatever.  The music of part one was lovely, if overly long.  The ballet was conceived as a tribute to Tchaikovsky, with Stravinsky borrowing themes from piano pieces and songs by the older composer and arranging them for his own dramatic purposes.  I think that once they decided not to present some sort of enactment of the plot Stravinsky intended for “The Fairy’s Kiss,” which was suggested by a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, then they could well have used the “Divertimento” that Stravinsky devised for concert performances, made up of the most interesting parts that would stand up in a concert setting without depicting a story.  Whatever they were trying to accomplish in part one could be done in half the time they used.

After intermission, a piece for piano four-hands by Louis Durey (1888-1979), the most obscure member of the Parisian composing clique of the 1920s called “les Six”, set the stage for the enactment of “Petrouchka.”  Durey’s rather nondescript music was adequate for its mood-setting purpose, but did not inspire me to think I should try to search out more of Durey’s music.  It seemed serviceable to accompany a dancer doing exercises to prepare for a major role.  It was well-played by NYP pianist Eric Huebner assisted by Steve Beck.  (Huebner, by the way, was spectacularly good in the challenging piano solos in Petrouchka.)

And all the music was well-played, given the circumstances, by a very charged-up Philharmonic directed by Alan Gilbert.  Since becoming music director, Gilbert has delighted in making each season’s final week a spectacular departure from the norm of subscription concerts, going out with a bang.  (Last year, they played the Armory!  In prior years they have given us stagings of rarely performed operas by Ligeti and Janacek.)  Fitch has played a role in several of these adventures as a master of puppetry and stage illusion, and he was at his imaginative best with the Petrouchka, abetted by wonderful young dancers, Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, both prominent at New York City Ballet.  (Two prominent young opera singers were also featured, not as singers but as pantomime artists for a film that was an integral part of the Petrouchka presentation – Eric Owens and Anthony Roth Costanzo.)  The members of the Philharmonic were enlisted to do more than just play their instruments, as roving cameras projected their doings on the screen from time to time, and many of them donned colorful Russian-themed additions to their concert attire for the orchestra to enact the presence of the crowd at the Shrovetide Fair required by the opening and closing scenes of the ballet.  (They also engaged in rhythmic footstomping, standing and twirling about, and enthusiastic toasting with cups filled from samovars …. it was a wonder that the playing continued without missing a beat, although some of the tomfoolery may help to explain some cracked notes in the brass.)

And the shriek!  Prior to the performance, conductor Gilbert came on stage to pantomime (assisted by projected titles) a “rehearsal” of the audience in a mass shriek to be added at an appropriate moment in the performance.  I had assumed this would be when the Moor finishes off poor Petroushka with his scimitar…. but I guessed incorrectly.  It was to respond to the appearance of the chained bear during the Shrovetide Fair finale, and the audience contributed a wonderful shriek upon cue from Gilbert, who got into the action quite a bit.

On balance I would judge this about 2/3 successful, discounting for the less interesting, indeed somewhat bewildering, first part, but acknowledging the overwhelming success of the second, which fully deserved the repeated ovations from the audience.  Certainly I hope they keep bringing Doug Fitch back to plan more elaborate season-ending extravaganzas.  These are risky and expensive shows to put on, but they pack the hall and built enthusiasm for the NYP.

But, the evening also illustrated one of the problems the NYP has to deal with.  There is a declining subscriber base for orchestra seasons, and a portion of the remaining base is superannuated or not really that interested.  There are subscriptions that pass down the generations in families to land on the generation that doesn’t care, and there are certainly corporate subscriptions whose holders don’t always use their tickets.  Fitch’s NYP productions have become “hot tickets.”  The Philharmonic sent out an email to subscribers a week prior, observing that at any given concert about 15% of those holding subscription tickets don’t attend, don’t make the effort to pass their tickets to others, thus leaving their seats empty.  (Now that they can scan barcodes on tickets, they can know precisely who is showing up.)  There was a waiting list for tickets for these final concerts of the season, and the Philharmonic implored subscribers to donate their tickets back if they were not coming.   I imagine some tickets were turned in as a result, but on Saturday night, at a concert billed as “sold out” with a waiting list, there were empty seats.  I presume some subscribers who didn’t come also didn’t respond….  A shame that not everybody who wanted to attend this concert could be accommodated. 

Now, I’m looking forward to the truncated “Summertime Classics” series coming up the first week of July.  Unfortunately, this entertaining series has been much reduced from its original conception.  I suspect that the Philharmonic’s spring tour and its summer parks concerts, taken together with the necessary extension of the subscription season because of the tour, threatened to squeeze out Summertime Classics entirely, but I’m glad that at least two programs (each presented a few times) will be given. We must have our fix of series conductor Bramwell Tovey, the military academy bands on Independence Day, and some out-of-the-way repertory.  But I am nostalgic for the earlier years of this series when there were more programs and more novelties of repertory, some with first-rate instrumental soloists….  I imagine tickets are still available for this week’s concerts.  Rush to the NYP website for a real treat!

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