The NY Philharmonic Returns – Two Fine Concerts after Spring Tour

The New York Philharmonic was off on a tour last month, then returned to dedicate June to “Alan Gilbert’s Playlist,” the idea that the season would close with a selection of conductor Gilbert’s favorites.  But first, there was a distinguished young guest conductor, Lionel Bringuier, to present a bit of a grab-bag program of mainly lighter works that was sheer fun to hear.  I attended the Saturday performance on June 15.

 The concert got off to a lively start with Paul Dukas’s L’Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), which evokes memories of Mickey Mouse frantically chopping up the rapidly multiplying hosts of animated brooms carrying water to flood the sorcerer’s laboratory.  The young Bringuier, who made a strongly positive impression when he led a Mostly Mozart Festival concert here a few years ago, is still under 30 but conducts like a mature maestro.  That is, the opening was paced slowly and dramatically, and the main section was focused more on coherence and drama than a rapid flash.  The Philharmonic played brilliantly for him.

 Leonidas Kavakos collaborated with Bringuier on the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2.  While Kavakos is clearly a master of the technical demands of this piece, I did not feel that violinist and conductor had a real grip on the structure of the first movement, which can sound either episodic and patched together or like a unified, organically unfolding statement, depending how the performers pace it.  In this case, I felt it was too episodic.  No complaints, however, about the gorgeous middle movement, which reinforced my firm conviction that Prokofiev was one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century.  The finale was appropriately exuberant, but I think they could have let go even more for an ideally ferocious finale.

 After intermission, all was excellent.  First, they played Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” which the NY Times critic characterized as pops concert fare, but I would not hold that against the piece or its inclusion on a regular subscription program.  I don’t think everything on a symphony concert program has to be deep or portentous.  Sometimes music can just be enjoyed on the surface when it is played as well as this was played.  Bringuier gave the orchestra plenty of room to shine with individualistic solos and displays of sheer virtuosity in the fast sections.  The concluding Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky was more of the same, capturing all the fantasy of the composer’s richly colorful orchestrations.  I could have done with an encore after that powerful finale, but the NYP doesn’t indulge in them unless there is a soloist – and even then, rarely.

 Last night (Thursday, June 20), I was back in Avery Fisher Hall for one of Gilbert’s “Playlist” concerts – Josef Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D with Emanuel Ax, Christopher Rouse’s 3rd Symphony in its NY premiere, and a one-hour suite of orchestral music excerpted by Gilbert from Wagner’s mighty Der Ring des Nibelungen operatic series.

 The Haydn Concerto is not heard as much as it used to be, as symphony orchestras have increasingly eschewed 18th century repertory in the wake of the “original instruments” movement, but the program note made a good case for playing this piece with a modern piano and instrumental ensemble, and Ax and Gilbert collaborated on a relaxed but adequately animated performance.  Ax never lets me down when he plays with the Philharmonic, although I do find his very mainstream, moderately-paced performances can sometimes be less than totally absorbing.  Last night the loving collaboration with Gilbert, who proclaims Haydn his favorite composer in the program book, was captivating.  If the NYP is willing to play late 18th century music, I would support some more exploration along these lines.  We hear occasional Mozart concerti, but I think we should also hear some C.P.E. Bach (there are loads of piano concerti) and some of the other contemporaries of Haydn and Mozart from time to time.  C.P.E. Bach symphonies would also be a fertile source of interesting late 18th century fare.

 Christopher Rouse likes loud, flashing orchestral effects, and in his 3rd Symphony he provides a first movement that is unrelentingly loud and forward moving.  This is to be expected, since he reveals in the program note that his model for this piece was Serge Prokofiev’s rarely-performed 2nd Symphony.  Prokofiev, reacting to the notoriety of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, wrote a first movement calculated to show that he could be as dissonant and deafening as his slightly younger contemporary.  Prokofiev professed not to know whether he liked or understood what he had written, and the grindingly dissonant piece is probably the least frequently played of his symphonies.  Rouse’s piece is his own original work, but the inspiration of Prokofiev can be strongly heard.  I found Rouse’s first movement, loud as it was, to be a bit tamer than its historical model.

 Prokofiev provided, by contrast, a much less “modernistic” second movement, writing a theme and variations piece that is hauntingly beautiful in its initial thematic statement and develops through fantastic variations to an ethereal finale.  True to his model (which was itself structured to resemble Beethoven’s last piano sonata), Rouse provides a theme and variations piece and, channeling the Prokofiev, states the theme in a gorgeous, tonally rich string foundation for long-lined wind solos.  Rouse is not as great a melodist that Prokofiev was, but he comes close with this theme, and provides a string of imaginative variations that rival his model in effectiveness. 

 Overall I found the symphony an interesting work on first hearing, one that I’d like to hear again.  The program book reported that Gilbert plans to present a new symphony by Rouse (the orchestra’s composer in residence) next season, and one hopes that the two symphonies could be recorded and issued on a CD.  The NYP has been marketing downloads of selected concerts, but I don’t care for the download format, and so I was delighted that their Nielsen project for Da Capo is being released on compact discs.  Also, there is a new Magnus Lindberg CD from the Philharmonic, presenting pieces played during that composer’s recent residency with the orchestra.  I hope it provides a model for Rouse.  (Gilbert is a distinguished and enthusiastic Rouse interpreter, having recorded the first two symphonies for BIS during his directorship of the Stockholm orchestra.)

 Gilbert’s presentation of highlights from “The Ring” was a sumptuous feast.  It used to be that orchestras frequently programmed “bleeding chunks” of orchestral excerpts from these Wagner operas (I recall a fantastic performance of Siegfried’s Funeral Music by Colin Davis and the BSO during my student days in Boston), but that practice seems to have subsided.  In the event, an entire hour may have been overkill, but the chance to hear this music played by a major orchestra on stage rather than a reduced orchestra in a submerged pit in an opera house was not to be missed.  Some unfamiliarity with the music was evident, especially in a few of the wind solos, and some slightly out-of-tune exposed passages in the first violins, which did not seem quite settled in on this first presentation of the program.  It will probably sound more assured by the last performance on Saturday.

 I account this program a great success, and am looking forward eagerly to the big season finale next week, when Gilbert again collaborates with puppeteer Doug Fitch and other collaborative artists on a presentation based on Stravinsky’s “Fairy’s Kiss” and “Petrouchka.”   The demand for tickets has been so great that on Thursday the Philharmonic sent emails to subscribers asking them to turn in their tickets if they could not attend because there is a long waiting list for the totally sold-out performances.  That’s what we want to hear!!

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