I was at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, tonight for the New York Philharmonic concert conducted by Daniel Harding, with Joshua Bell as soloist for Peter I. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. The concert began with the very brief "Flourish with Fireworks" by Oliver Knussen, and concluded with Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), the early 20th century ballet that revolutionized music and for many marks the beginning of the "modern" era.
Le Sacre should be the main event on any concert that includes it, but time has faded its shock value and the level of orchestral virtuosity has risen so far since 1913 that it has become quite difficult for an orchestra of the top rank — such as the NY Philharmonic — to produce a performance that does not suffer from some routine and excessive comfort. And that was the case tonight, but more on that anon.
First, the Knussen, a trifle written for Michael Tilson Thomas's opening concert as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra back in 1988. It is a trifle, but a charming one. Inspired by Igor Stravinsky's "Fireworks" and thus thematically linked to the balance of this program, the piece makes a quick, colorful flash, says its thing, and then exits the stage. It was tossed off with aplomb by conductor and orchestra, and then it was gone…
The NY Philharmonic's publicity department knows where its bread is buttered. Their promotion of this concert emphasized Joshua Bell and Tchaikovsky, not Stravinsky. And with good reason, because Bell is at the top of his game and gave us a very satisfying performance of this concerto. He really throws himself into a piece physically, moving about, sweating a bundle, and channeling the music. I think Tchaikovsky misjudged in the first movement, creating an overextended, repetitious piece, but the second and third movements are just about perfect in length and affect, and Harding and the orchestra were at one with Bell for a sumptuous Canzonetta and a thrilling finale that was truly, as directed, Allegro vivacissimo.
But the Stravinsky! Just from hearing the opening bassoon solo, stretched out just a bit too long, I could tell that this performance would lack some of the necessary electricity. This is a super-virtuoso orchestra and Harding is technically a superbly equipped conductor for whom this music is a part of his cultural heritage. And perhaps that's the problem. When even top orchestras were on the edge of their seats and had to struggle a bit to get through this piece, it generated a lot more excitement. The concluding Sacrifical Dance of the Chosen One has to be really savage, gripping, but here it sounded too much like arithmetic and not enough like a dance to the death. In addition, I thought instrumental balances were seriously askew at some points, with subsidiary chords drowning out the main line of the music. The concluding section of the first part, the Dance of the Earth, was actually thrilling, but then part two, which should start with intense mystery, struck me as flat, and the buildup to the big explosion did not generate the necessary tension.
Perhaps I'm just jaded by knowing Le Sacre too well. By coincidence I heard Benjamin Zander's concert recording with his Boston Philharmonic just a few days ago, and it was thrilling, so I don't think so. I can still be thrilled by Le Sacre, but tonight I wasn't.