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New York Philharmonic Summertime Classics – 2013 Edition

Posted on: July 7th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

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. . .

NY Philharmonic: Out With a Bang and a Shriek

Posted on: June 30th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Philharmonic ended its regular subscription season last night with the last of three performances of a show conceived by Doug Fitch (Director/Designer), using music mainly by Igor Stravinsky to accompany a production titled “A Dancer’s Dream.”  Several rows of seats were removed from the front of the orchestra section to accommodate an extended stage, where dancers and various technical assistants would use lighting, cameras, costumes, miniature toys projected on a big screen, and other devices to create the magical world of “Petrouchka,” Stravinsky’s puppet ballet.  But that was the second half of the program.  The first half, much less enlivening and a bit of a strain on the attention of the audience, used the equally lengthy (but much less popular or familiar) Stravinsky ballet music for  “The Fairy’s Kiss” to suggest a dreamlike world in which a member of the audience gradually transforms herself into a prima ballerina, fit to portray Columbine in Petrouchka.

Or that’s what seemed to be going on.  Whatever.  The music of part one was lovely, if overly long.  The ballet was conceived as a tribute to Tchaikovsky, with Stravinsky borrowing themes from piano pieces and songs by the older composer and arranging them for his own dramatic purposes.  I think that once they decided not to present some sort of enactment of the plot Stravinsky intended for “The Fairy’s Kiss,” which was suggested by a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, then they could well have used the “Divertimento” that Stravinsky devised for concert performances, made up of the most interesting parts that would stand up in a concert setting without depicting a story.  Whatever they were trying to accomplish in part one could be done in half the time they used.

After intermission, a piece for piano four-hands by Louis Durey (1888-1979), the most obscure member of the Parisian composing clique of the 1920s called “les Six”, set the stage for the enactment of “Petrouchka.”  Durey’s rather nondescript music was adequate for its mood-setting purpose, but did not inspire me to think I should try to search out more of Durey’s music.  It seemed serviceable to accompany a dancer doing exercises to prepare for a major role.  It was well-played by NYP pianist Eric Huebner assisted by Steve Beck.  (Huebner, by the way, was spectacularly good in the challenging piano solos in Petrouchka.)

And all the music was well-played, given the circumstances, by a very charged-up Philharmonic directed by Alan Gilbert.  Since becoming music director, Gilbert has delighted in making each season’s final week a spectacular departure from the norm of subscription concerts, going out with a bang.  (Last year, they played the Armory!  In prior years they have given us stagings of rarely performed operas by Ligeti and Janacek.)  Fitch has played a role in several of these adventures as a master of puppetry and stage illusion, and he was at his imaginative best with the Petrouchka, abetted by wonderful young dancers, Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, both prominent at New York City Ballet.  (Two prominent young opera singers were also featured, not as singers but as pantomime artists for a film that was an integral part of the Petrouchka presentation – Eric Owens and Anthony Roth Costanzo.)  The members of the Philharmonic were enlisted to do more than just play their instruments, as roving cameras projected their doings on the screen from time to time, and many of them donned colorful Russian-themed additions to their concert attire for the orchestra to enact the presence of the crowd at the Shrovetide Fair required by the opening and closing scenes of the ballet.  (They also engaged in rhythmic footstomping, standing and twirling about, and enthusiastic toasting with cups filled from samovars …. it was a wonder that the playing continued without missing a beat, although some of the tomfoolery may help to explain some cracked notes in the brass.)

And the shriek!  Prior to the performance, conductor Gilbert came on stage to pantomime (assisted by projected titles) a “rehearsal” of the audience in a mass shriek to be added at an appropriate moment in the performance.  I had assumed this would be when the Moor finishes off poor Petroushka with his scimitar…. but I guessed incorrectly.  It was to respond to the appearance of the chained bear during the Shrovetide Fair finale, and the audience contributed a wonderful shriek upon cue from Gilbert, who got into the action quite a bit.

On balance I would judge this about 2/3 successful, discounting for the less interesting, indeed somewhat bewildering, first part, but acknowledging the overwhelming success of the second, which fully deserved the repeated ovations from the audience.  Certainly I hope they keep bringing Doug Fitch back to plan more elaborate season-ending extravaganzas.  These are risky and expensive shows to put on, but they pack the hall and built enthusiasm for the NYP.

But, the evening also illustrated one of the problems the NYP has to deal with.  There is a declining subscriber base for orchestra seasons, and a portion of the remaining base is superannuated or not really that interested.  There are subscriptions that pass down the generations in families to land on the generation that doesn’t care, and there are certainly corporate subscriptions whose holders don’t always use their tickets.  Fitch’s NYP productions have become “hot tickets.”  The Philharmonic sent out an email to subscribers a week prior, observing that at any given concert about 15% of those holding subscription tickets don’t attend, don’t make the effort to pass their tickets to others, thus leaving their seats empty.  (Now that they can scan barcodes on tickets, they can know precisely who is showing up.)  There was a waiting list for tickets for these final concerts of the season, and the Philharmonic implored subscribers to donate their tickets back if they were not coming.   I imagine some tickets were turned in as a result, but on Saturday night, at a concert billed as “sold out” with a waiting list, there were empty seats.  I presume some subscribers who didn’t come also didn’t respond….  A shame that not everybody who wanted to attend this concert could be accommodated. 

Now, I’m looking forward to the truncated “Summertime Classics” series coming up the first week of July.  Unfortunately, this entertaining series has been much reduced from its original conception.  I suspect that the Philharmonic’s spring tour and its summer parks concerts, taken together with the necessary extension of the subscription season because of the tour, threatened to squeeze out Summertime Classics entirely, but I’m glad that at least two programs (each presented a few times) will be given. We must have our fix of series conductor Bramwell Tovey, the military academy bands on Independence Day, and some out-of-the-way repertory.  But I am nostalgic for the earlier years of this series when there were more programs and more novelties of repertory, some with first-rate instrumental soloists….  I imagine tickets are still available for this week’s concerts.  Rush to the NYP website for a real treat!