Symphonic Sondheim at the New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic has a long-running love affair with Stephen Sondheim, having presented some of his shows in concert as well as special evenings devoted to his songs and instrumental music.  Last night they tried something different – an entire evening of Sondheim with no singing!  Of the six numbers on the program, four were orchestral suits based on Sondheim musicals (Sunday in the Park with George, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, and Sweeney Todd), one was a selection from incidental music for a play (The Enclave), and one was a suite drawn from music composed for the soundtrack of a film (Stavisky).  Paul Gemignani conducted, and Nathan Lane provided commentary before each selection.

This made for an interesting but sometimes perplexing evening.  There is no doubt that Sondheim is more than a simple tunesmith.  Indeed, I think his show music is integrally tied to the texts and situations for which it is devised.  The tunes stand up on their own, but anybody familiar with the shows can’t help thinking of them in terms of the “missing” lyrics.  Furthermore, I found that the suites drawn from the shows tended to dwell too long on particular songs, repeating segments when the original song had multiple verses.  On the other hand, it was interesting to hear the familiar tunes decked out in full orchestral splendor, as opposed to the more barebones pit orchestras that one hears in the theater (or slightly enlarged at times for the cast recordings, usually with a few more strings than can be crammed into a theater pit).

In this concert context, I found the most satisfactory pieces were the suite from Stavisky, music conceived instrumentally without lyrics, which stood up better to orchestral concert listening (and reminded me, at least in the earlier portions of the piece, of Honegger!).  I was uncertain why the incidental music from “The Enclave” would be included in this concert.  It was written for two pianos with some percussion, and the spectacle of the New York Philharmonic sitting on stage mute while its two pianists and one percussionist played this piece was a bit odd.  If you have the New York Philharmonic on stage, use it!  (I’m not suggesting they should have commissioned an orchestration of the decidedly pianistic “Enclave” music, just that they should have selected something else.)

But enough of carping.  Overall it was a delightful concert, Nathan Lane was sharp and witty — although the bit of playing dumb about musical technicalities can get tired quickly — and the Sweeney Todd suite, in particular, struck me as well-suited to concert listening, as did the Stavisky suite.  The Philharmonic sounded like they were playing this program on limited rehearsal.   There was some tentativeness about their playing, and this seems to have been squeezed in between two regular subscription weeks, so I can’t imagine it received anything near the amount of rehearsing they get for a subscription program, but under the circumstances it was pretty good.  (Although if they want to realize a recording out of it, I would imagine they would need to have a patching session after the audience left to cover the rougher spots…)  If they release a recording, I would want it for the sheer job of hearing Sondheim’s music played by the virtuosi of the NYP.

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