For some unaccountable reason, the New York Philharmonic had decided to devote the week between Christmas and New Year to a program heavy with "modern music" and premieres – works for soloists and orchestra by Paul Hindemith, Aaron Jay Kernis (a world premiere NYP commission) and Christopher Rouse (a NYC premiere), as well as a Vivaldi concerto for 4 violins (Op. 3, No. 10) and Ravel's Bolero to conclude. Rather an odd program for this holiday week, when many subscribers are away and the hall is likely to be full of tourists and people who don't usually go to concerts. But then something happened: the Big Blizzard of 2010 hit NYC and some of the rehearsals for this program got wiped out.
Voila – instant pops time! Gone were the Hindemith, Kernis and Rouse, to be replaced by Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Sibelius's Valse triste, the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and a selection of movements from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet. Now, this is music that can be worked up without a full rehearsal schedule, because the orchestra has played all of it in recent years, so it ended up that the only piece on the program that had not been played recently by the orchestra was the Vivaldi concerto, and that involved only a small selection of string players.
Actually, this turned out to be a more appropriate program, given the time of year and the audience. You can tell when there are lots of concert novices in the audience — because there is lots of applauding between the movements of works. Concert veterans have imbibed the social etiquette of the uninterrupted multi-movement work. I think this is silly much of the time, and it strikes me as positively unnatural for silence to reign at the end of a movement that concludes with loud flourishes. The composer was expecting applause at that point. (Indeed, newspaper accounts of the premieres of some of Haydn's London Symphonies indicate that the applause after the slow movements was frequently so tumultuous that they would be encored before proceeding with the rest of the concert. Take that out and chew on it, all you "historically informed performance" advocates….) I think enthusiasm should be encouraged, and the social convention against applause between movements – at least movements whose endings really demand applause to complete the emotional experience – should fade away.
So, tonight there was applause between the movements of the Tchaikovsky ballet, and after the first movement of the Vivaldi concerto. And it was just fine. And the orchestra deserved it. The Polonaise is a bit of noise extracted from the opera, but the Nutcracker is an incredible accomplishment of musical genius, one great tune after another, tricked out in the most ingenious and entirely appropriate orchestration. The Faun was suitably languid, and the Bolero worked up to a great rip-roaring finale. It was a luxury to hear the Vivaldi concerto played by a select group of NYP string players, with a warm full sound – not the usual astringency we've come to expect from period string players – and the soloists drawn from the orchestra were excellent. Valse triste reminded me that we hardly hear anywhere near enough of Sibelius from our local band, surprising considering where Alan Gilbert has spent the last few years before his NYP gig.
So, here's my special wish: sooner rather than later, I want the NYP to perform Sibelius's great tone poem cycle, Op. 22, variously known as "Four Legends from the Kalevala" or "The Lemminkainen Suite." This was how I first came to Sibelius, through a mono LP by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in my father's collection. (It's never been issued on CD, but I'm told that Pristine Classical has it in the pipeline, as they've been issuing the mono Ormandy/Philadelphia Sibelius recordings.) Ormandy's stereo remake with the Philadelphia for EMI came rather late in his career, and tempi are slightly sedate at times by comparison to other recordings, but the sound is rich and the spirit is there, especially in the great finale: Lemminkainen's Homeward Journey. And I am mightily impressed by a recording from the 1970s by Kamu and the Finnish National Radio Orchestra on DG, which is available in a recent reissue at budget price, which has received an excellent remastering for digital release. It sounds like Ormandy with slightly more oomph, although the orchestra is not as opulent as the old Philadelphia from Ormandy days. But I want to hear this piece live and complete…. with the Swan in correct order (#2). Please, Alan Gilbert, indulge me!