This afternoon the New York Philharmonic winds up the unfortunately abbreviated Summertime Classics series directed by Bramwell Tovey, with a repeat of last night’s spectacular program, “The Planets – An HD Odyssey.” This was the second of two programs for this year’s series. The first, presented on July 3 & 4, was the annual “Star-Spangled Celebration.” The second program was performed on July 5, 6 and is repeated this afternoon, the 7th. Thus, the entire series consisted of five concerts presenting two programs.
When this series got started in 2004, it was a bit more substantial. To the best of my recollection, there were at least four different programs presented over the course of two weeks. I surmise that this year’s abbreviated version had to do more with the Philharmonic’s other obligations than with any slackening in public demand for these programs, since the series has been virtually sold out this year and audience responses have been enthusiastic. From the looks on their faces, the musicians were also enthusiastic about these programs. (The Philharmonic’s other obligations include the spring tour, which pushed the subscription season back to end on June 29, and the forthcoming Vail residency and NYC parks concerts. Things got squeezed, and Summertime Classics ending up being short.)
I would urge the Philharmonic to try to restore this series back to two weeks with three or four programs and some more instrumental soloists. Audience demand is there, and the programs presented over the past week have been a pleasure to attend.
Tovey. music director of the Vancouver Symphony, is an adventurous programmer, and so we had some pieces that haven’t been played in a long time, some receiving their NYP premieres. Although several of the regular members of the Philharmonic were off this week, a solid core of the orchestra was there, supplemented by excellent substitutes. The standard of playing was very high, worthy of the NYP in every respect.
The first program, which I attended at the July 4 matinee, fell into what has become a formula for the Summertime Classics program that includes July 4 in its schedule. In the first half, the Philharmonic plays American music; in the second, a band (or as they are sometimes called these days, a wind orchestra) from one of the military services plays several selections from their repertory of transcriptions and original works, led by their music director, followed by the combined NYP and band performing an “Armed Forces Medley” during which members of the audience who served in the various forces are encouraged to stand when the medley gets to their service, also led by the military conductor. The finale gives us Sousa marches played by the joint forces on stage under Tovey’s direction, with rousing audience participation during the final number, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which is then encored under the military band leader’s direction.
This formula could get stale were it not for Tovey’s concern to balance the familiar with the novel, and the inevitable inclusion in the military band’s repertory of some contemporary works not previously heard in Avery Fisher Hall. This year, Tovey led off with an excellent ride through Aaron Copland’s “Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo,” followed by the NYP premiere of his own composition, “The Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret for Trombone and Orchestra.” This piece was originally conceived for trombone and band several years ago, with the NYP principal trombone player, Joe Alessi, intended as the soloist, and it was expanded to full orchestral form for these concerts. Tovey explained that he was inspired by the thought of Alessi, who commutes from New Jersey, getting stuck at the entry to the Lincoln Tunnel and then getting out of his car and entertaining the unhappy drivers stuck behind him with trombone ditties while awaiting the repairman. Tovey also explained that although it turns out Alessi commutes on the G.W. Bridge, he stuck with his original concept, just because…. he liked it. Alessi, who is an extraordinary virtuoso, seemed to be having great fun with his solo, and the audience loved it as well. Tovey is not a “deep” composer, based on the works I’ve heard, but a polished craftsman who knows how to write effectively for the orchestra and to provide fine entertainment for the audience.
This year’s military band participant was the U.S. Coast Guard Band, conducted by Captain Kenneth W. Megan. They provided excellent performances of Sousa’s “The Glory of the Yankee Navy” (an odd choice, in the circumstances, but worth hearing), Kenneth Hesketh’s “Masque for Symphonic Wind Band,” and an arrangement by Clare Grundman of four selections from Leonard Bernstein’s musical show, Candide. Hesketh, a contemporary British composer, provides a perpetuum mobile that I thought had a rather mechanistic effect. Whether this was due to Megan’s conducting decisions on tempo and interpretation or was intrinsic to the piece I couldn’t say. I just found it rather relentless and unvaried, but not totally unpleasant. I can imagine a performance that might do more with it. The Sousa and Bernstein were splendidly done, although I thought a band transcription of the Overture might have been more effective than these individual songs presented without their lyrics.
The Armed Forces Medley, arranged by Daniel Sandidge and Sean Nelson, is always a big hit with the audience, and we all applauded the veterans as they stood for their service anthems. Of course, the band stood while playing for the least familiar of them, the Coast Guard song “Semper Paratus.”
The final series of three Sousa marches was, I thought, perhaps one too many. They performed “Hands Across the Sea,” “The Liberty Bell,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (twice, as noted above). Sousa was the greatest composer of military marches of his time, but he wasn’t the only one, and there are many fine American-composed military marches that might be included in the future. Three Sousas in a row can lack variety, and I would have wished for perhaps one by another composer for contrast. But all three were certainly well played, and brought the program to a splendid conclusion. An added touch: When Capt. Megan came on to conduct the encore of “Stars and Stripes,” Tovey scooted back to the brass section, picked up a euphonium, and played along with the orchestra and band.
I attended the second program, “The Planets – An HD Odyssey,” last night (July 6), for its second performance. Thus, I twice enjoyed the benefit of hearing a program that had already been presented once, a distinct advantage considering that squeezing two complete programs into one week meant that these programs did not get quite as much rehearsal time as a regular subscription program would receive. Building on the decision to supplement “The Planets” with a projection on a large screen over the orchestra of a film that was prepared using footage from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for performances by the Houston Symphony, Tovey constructed the first part of his program out of pieces suggesting travel.
As a brief overture, he presented “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” one of John Adams’ early hits, inspired by a hectic ride in his brother-in-law’s Lamborghini automobile. This put us in the mood for a much-belated NYP premiere, the ballet music from the final act of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta “The Trip to the Moon” from 1875. The ballet was loosely based on a Jules Verne novel about a scientist who responded to a prince’s commission to provide a trip to the moon by designing a capsule to be fired at the moon by an enormous cannon. Much of the play is devoted to the travelers’ adventures on the moon, culminating with this Ballet of the Snowflakes. A bit of it was actually familiar, as Manuel Rosenthal drew on this piece together with many other Offenbach works to produce the pastiche ballet, “Gaitee Parisienne,” which is ultra-familiar stuff. To close the first half, Tovey selected Josef Strauss’s waltz sequence titled “Music of the Spheres,” which hadn’t been played by the Philharmonic for 50 years. Thus, the first half was well-stocked with novelties, all well worth hearing. Tovey conducted with his usual animation, and the orchestra responded in kind for an exhilarating build-up to the main event.
Considering what a repertory fixture it has become, it surprised me that The Planets was last played by the NYP as long ago as 2004, so this was also a bit of a novelty. I was present at Carnegie Hall a few years ago when Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony gave the first NYC presentation of this piece accompanied by this film, and I ended up having mixed feelings about the experience. The film itself has fascinating material, and some of it involves motion, not just still snaps, of the planets and their surface features. At times, however, the projection distracts one from the music, turning the piece into a film soundtrack rather than the main event. After a while, the film can be rather boring and repetitive. There is no life on these planets, and their surface features, though differing a bit in color or texture, are basically barren wastelands. I suppose a geologist would be fascinated throughout, but I found myself encountering some boredom. That could not be attributed to the music itself, a genuine masterpiece that puts all of Holst’s other music well in the shade. The Philharmonic gave a super-virtuosic performance, with particularly distinguished solos from the winds and tympani. Avery Fisher Hall’s electronic organ was at least adequate most of the time – but this hall sadly lacks the kind of real pipe organ that could have provided the gut-punching effect intended for the big movements.
Tovey provided a suitable encore — The “Imperial March” from John Williams’ score for “Star Wars” — which, in the circumstances, strikingly illustrated Williams’ debt to Holst as one of his inspirations for that magnicent film score. I’ve long thought that Williams’ biggest inspiration for “Star Wars” was William Walton’s First Symphony, with large bits of Prokofiev for harmonic spice, but the Holst contribution came through clearly last night.
Two excellent programs, two excellently played concerts – Bravo, NYP! But please consider figuring out ways to make this series a bit longer. I realize that the economics of the situation require two programs in a week with somewhat less rehearsal than the norm, but this orchestra, even filled out with substitutes, can prepare such programs under a first-rate conductor like Tovey, provided they are not asked to sustain the effort over too long a period. Two weeks should be about right. . .