NY Philharmonic Summertime Classics – Part II – The American Night

For the second and last program of this summer's abbreviated installment of Summertime Classics, the New York Philharmonic provided its now-traditional 4th of July program, spread over three performances from Saturday night through Tuesday evening.  I attended the last.  Bramwell Tovey was on the podium for about half the program, the rest being taken by Major Brian Dix, Director and Commanding Officer of the evening's guest artists, the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps (quaintly captioned "The Commandant's Own").

Over the past few years it has become customary to include in this Independence Day weekend concerts an ensemble from the armed forces, and the various bands have been quite extraordinary.  The U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps is no less so, but I thought it was quite out of place in Avery Fisher Hall.  This is a hall known for its bright and brash acoustics in any event, and taking what is a quintessentially outdoor ensemble – all brass and percussion, with no leavening of woodwinds – and placing it in this hall was an occasion for sheer sonic overload.  Most of the time, it was just too loud for comfort, and the hall acoustic gave such prominence to the percussion when they were playing loud that even this oversize brass ensemble of iron-lunged young musicians was submerged in acoustic mush.  On top of that, this is an organization intended for the parade ground and usually seems to perform with a mechanistic, metronomic quality that is also unsuitable for a concert hall.

The first half, conducted by Tovey, began with a "Salute to Broadway" medley made up of selections from three shows about about 60 years ago, as originally selected by Andre Kostelanetz, the NYP's pops conductor of the 1950s & 1960s, and arranged by Robert Russell Bennett.  The result was a period of nostalgia for the lost glories of the old post-World War II Broadway musicals, with selections from Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific and My Fair Lady.   Assistant Concertmaster Michelle Kim, sitting in the first desk, played her solos most affectingly and deserve the ovation she got.  These concerts are generally a chance for the second and third desk folks to shine, as the NYP gives most of the principals a brief vacation during Summertime Classics.

Beginning with a Bennett arrangement had an interesting irony, since his arrangement of a suite from Gershwin's Porgy & Bess is the way most symphony pops audiences grew to love that music.  Gershwin's own suite, which fell from view at his early death and was only rediscovered — and renamed "Catfish Row" by the composer's brother, Ira — in 1958, completed the first half.  It incorporates the "Jazzbo Brown" piano solo with which the opera opens, and Tovey charmingly descended the podium and took the bench of the deliberately out-of-town old upright to play the solo.  Kim was again a magnificent soloist in Gershwin's arrangement of "Summertime" for violin solo.  This suite includes some of the more unconventional music that Bennett omitted from the more commercial suite he compiled, while omitting one of the biggest hits from the show – "It Ain't Necessarily So."  But Gershwin uses the banjo from the original scoring to spice up "I've Got Plenty of Nothing" and the piece ends spectacularly with the final moments of the original opera.  The Philharmonic did a fine job on this one, the only piece on their part of the program that wasn't an arrangement or transcription by hands other than the composer's.

During intermission the stage was cleared so the Drum & Bugle Corps could stand in ranks, playing their portion of the program from memory.  There were striking red uniforms, carefully choreographed moving about, and an attempt by Major Dix to give the same kind of humorous patter that Tovey does so well – with mixed results.  I thought the arrangements of the pieces I know well – Copland's Appalachian Spring and Leroy Anderson's Fiddle Faddle, were travesties of the original.  Copland's beautiful hymnlike moments were egregiously overwhelmed with percussion busywork.  Anderson's showpiece for a virtuosic violin section was totally perverted into a piece for xylophones and drums that shed all the charm of the original while retaining its show-off character.  The original pieces by Dix seemed better suited for a football halftime show than a concert hall, but were of course rendered with utmost precision.

The Drum & Bugle Corps wrapped up with an arrangement of Sousa's Semper Fidelis, the Marine Corps' signature march, and then the stage was reset so the Philharmonic could sit in the front with a group from the Drum & Bugle Corps standing being them to play the final numbers.  A combined rendition of Sousa's Washington Post March led by Tovey had the requisite swing, and Dix's "Birth of a Drum Corps" (led by Tovey) was interesting without being memorable. Then Dix came out to lead Stephen Bulla's medley of the theme tunes from the Armed Forces, with serving members and vets in the audience encouraged to stand when their Service's theme was played – always a moving event, with lots of audience applause.

The grand finale, of course, was Sousa's Stars and Stripes together – with the composer's arrangement tinkered with by having the Marine xylophone players do the piccolo cadenza the first time through.  It all ended in a blaze of glory.

These concerts can be fun, but I encourage the Philharmonic to stick with a concert-hall-suitable military ensemble for its partner.  The Drum & Bugle Corps would have been spectacular out on the plaza of Lincoln Center, but in the hall they were a bit too much.

Thus truly ends the New York Philharmonic's 2010-11 concert season.  (Since there was no break between the end of the subscription series and the Summertime Classics this year, the entire thing just sort of rolled together.)  It was an excellent season, full of many high spots, an auspicious "sophomore year" for music director Alan Gilbert. 

As there are quite a few retirements with the end of the season, it will be interesting to see how the sound of the orchestra may or may not change for next season.  Principal Double Bass Eugene Levinson is an important one, from my perspective,  especially as the double bass section has been allowed to attrit over the past few seasons.  Even with Levinson listed in the program last night, there are only six listed, which means on any given program the orchestra is using several substitutes in the bass section.  At some of this year's concerts I felt the orchestra was a bit bass-shy – although that may also be due to my subcription seating in Box 4 of the second tier.  But I think it is past time for the NYP to get serious about hiring some excellent full-time players for that section.  An orchestra of this size and rank should be carrying eight or nine players on its regular roster, especially as it usually fields at least 14 first violins and lists 18 in that section on the roster.  No other section of the orchestra is so understaffed.   

Another major change for next season will be the frequent visiting appearances by Ricardo Morales, the principal clarinettist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who will be occupying the NYP principal chair full-time beginning September 2012.  Any change in a principal woodwind player is likely to affect the sound and personality of the orchestra.  So there is much to anticipate.

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