NY Philharmonic Summertime Classics – Part I – The Russian Night

This year we get only two Summertime Classics programs from the NY Philharmonic, each presented three times.  Due to the spring tour, the subscription season ran long, and the orchestra's July out-of-town commitment squeezed things tight, and so Summertime Classics is compressed into little more than a week.

Interestingly, having only two programs to play with, they decided to devote one to Russian music and the other (spanning 4th of July weekend) to American music.  I attended the first program (courtesy of a friend who had an unused ticket voucher) on Thursday night.  I bought a ticket for the second program's last performance upcoming on Tuesday night, July 5. 

Since 2004, Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony and a native of the U.K., has been the conductor for Summertime Classics.  An avuncular soul, Tovey intersperses remarks between the compositions, giving the event a somewhat less formal feeling than a typical subscription concert, and although these concerts are not devoted to "light music," the repertory is relatively undemanding on the listeners.  However, Tovey is also an adventurous programmer, at least to judge by his recorded repertory, and we have been offered some works that have rarely been performed by the Philharmonic, and even occasionally an NYP premiere, as we had in this Russian program with Alexander Glazunov's "Valse de concert No. 2 in F Major, Op. 51" from 1894.  I'd love to hear more premieres and fewer familiar retreads (Tovey played the finale of tonight's program during the 2006 Summertime Classics series, the Tchaikovsky concerto was given by the Philharmonic as recently as this past December.)

The program was actually built around Kirill Gerstein's debut with the Philharmonic in Piotr I. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23.  I've heard Gerstein before, and I bought his marvelous debut recital CD, which I highly recommend.  He's got all the technique you could need for the Tchaikovsky, but as well a poetic sensibility and individual approach that made this performance a bit out of the ordinary.  Just a slightly different emphasis in the chording, the rhythms, the bending of tempi, and the piece sounds different – although all the notes are there.  From his very first entry, those pounding chords accompanying the famous big tune of the introduction, one knew this performance would be "different," and the point was especially driven home by his handling of the beginning of the Allegro con spirito after the introduction.  The principal theme sounded startlingly different from what one is used to hearing, in an interesting way, due to his phrasing and rhythmic emphases.  I felt this throughout the movement – Gerstein was taking an old war-horse and making it new again.  The second movement was appropriately tender in the outer sections and elphin and dashing in the central Prestissimo, and the finale had all the "fire" demanded by the rhythmically insistent "Allegro con fuoco."  It was a splendid debut.  I wish they had allowed him to play an encore, and I hope the Philharmonic invites him back for many subscription concerts to come.  The orchestral soloists contributed splendidly, and Tovey was with his pianist every step of the way in a finely coordinated performance.  (The Times review of the first performance of the series suggests that they needed more time playing together to achieve this degree of unanimity than was available from the truncated rehearsal schedule for these programs, but by this third rendition they were really "played in.")

The concert opened with the short, heavy-weight "Waltz" from Aram Khachaturian's incidental music for Lermontov's "Masquerade."  I first learned this music as a kid from the 78-rpm recording by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in my father's record collection.  It is from a suite that fit on four 78 rpm sides, and my favorite movement was always the finale, not the waltz, but the waltz is fun and was a decent "curtain-raiser" here to occupy the audience while the latecomers accumulated in the lobby….  Amazingly, the program notes indicated this was last played by the Philharmonic in May 1973, when Andre Kostelanetz was leading light music concerts after the regular subscription season.  It would have been nice to have the entire suite, and it would not be amiss to sneak it into a regular subscription concert for "light relief."

After intermission, we got our NYP premiere, the Glazunov.  Glazunov, a protege of Tchaikovsky and the westernizing Rubinstein brothers, manages to suggest the concert waltzes of Johann Strauss without being a slavish copyist.  There is nothing really memorable in this piece — so it's easy to understand why it is outside the regular repertory — but it is well made, beautifully orchestrated, and entertaining while it is being heard.  The musicians did a splendid job with it.

Finally, they wound things up with the "Polovtsian Dances" from Alexander Borodin's opera, "Prince Igor."  In the opera, there is a chorus that goes with the dances, and performances without a chorus seem incomplete once you've heard the original combination.  That aside, the performance was splendid, giving the orchestra a chance to show off their virtuosity in high style.  One wanted to get up and move about, the rhythms were so infectious.

For an encore, they played a March from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet.  I thought this a rather unimaginative choice, but it was certainly well done.  What they could have done, to continue the Borodin theme, would have been the March from Prince Igor.  (There is a really splendid recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on a recent CD reissue.)  This is very much in the style of the Polovtsian Dances, as various turns of phrase make clear it's by the same composer, but it's different enough to provide a contrast, and just the right length.  Maybe some other time.

At the beginning of his remarks from the stage, Maestro Tovey exclaimed that the concert was entirely sold out.  Not bad for a beautiful early summer weeknight in Manhattan, and showing that there is certainly a demand for this kind of concert.  I hope the Philharmonic plans things better next year and we get 3 or 4 Summertime Classics programs instead of just two. 

And I hope, as Alan Gilbert promised in his letter to the editor in the Times responding to the article bemoaning the lack of parks concerts this summer, that the Philharmonic restores that New York classic as well.  Although I haven't attended one in many years, the Parks concerts were important for me when I was younger, and I think they continue to be an important venue for families to introduce their children to music and for those who can't afford the stiff ticket prices at Avery Fisher Hall to be able to hear their city's orchestra perform.  It's great that NYC can have a large-scale "happening" that's centered around classical music in the midst of the world's greatest municipal park.  With both the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera falling by the wayside this year, there is a real gap in the city's cultural offerings.  (The Brooklyn Philharmonic offered to fill the gap, but I've not heard anything about the city taking up their offer….)

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