Monday, March 06, 2006

New York Philharmonic – Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Frank Peter Zimmerman, violin. 3/4/2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center; Second Tier, Seat DD107.

Allegro scorrevole (1996) by Elliott Carter (b. 1908).
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1841/1851) by Schumann (1810-56).
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878-79) by Brahms (1833-97).

We were in New York City early, so we attended the pre-concert lecture. The lecturer for today was David Wallace, who teaches at Julliard and the New York Philharmonic. He talked about rhythmic vitality and the different techniques Schumann and Brahms used to achieve it, illustrating his point with some excerpts from the Symphony and the Violin Concerto. And he talked about Carter in rather glowing terms, saying how he brings out the best in the various instruments, and how interesting the piece would be to listen to. Both Wallace and the program notes mention the wispy end to Carter’s piece. It was quite an interesting lecture. Perhaps the New York Philharmonic should make these lectures free and thus available to more people. As it is, 60 or so attendees at $5 per head doesn’t amount to much.

Tonight’s conductor was a stand-in for Christoph von Dohnanyi, who had to withdraw because of illness. I had never heard of Morlot before, the program notes say he is French, and is currently an assistant conductor at Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Carter piece, meaning a “flowing allegro”, was commissioned by Dohnanyi. Perhaps the piece would have sounded better with Dohnanyi conducting, but tonight it sounded simple, monotonous, and the melody (or what passes as such in these contemporary pieces) didn’t go “on and on” as Wallace put it during the lecture. The bursts of energy every now and then couldn’t salvage the otherwise muted piece. The ending, a short ascending phrase by the piccolo, to me didn’t sound wispy or interesting at all.

We actually heard another of Carter’s piece, the Holiday Overture, in October, 2005. I don’t remember the piece well, but I did write rather glowingly about it, calling it surprisingly tonal and folksy. The Holiday Overture (1944) was written about 50 years before tonight’s piece was, all this mathematical construction, rhythmic modulation, and other techniques Carter brought to his "newer" composition just made it more out of reach for me.

I am not a great fan of Schumann, no doubt in part due to my not having listened to him much. My expectations for tonight’s piece were somewhat shaped by the lecture: listen for the rhythmic techniques, and contrast his work with that of Carter’s. Schumann died at age 46, suffering from mental illness. He didn’t start composing symphonies until 1841, and the D minor symphony was started during that year. After an unsuccessful premiere, it was withdrawn and the revised work wasn’t performed until 1852, and he continued to work on it for two more years. Thus this symphony “covers Schumann’s career as a symphonist nearly from its beginning to its end – which, unfortunately, was a span that scarcely exceeded a decade.” (Quoting from the Program Notes.)

The piece turned out to be quite interesting. It was in four movements played without pause: Fairly slow- lively; Romance: Fairly slow; Scherzo: Lively; Slow – Lively – Faster – Presto. The movements were clearly demarcated, and contained several nice solos by various instruments. It was interesting to contrast how motifs are developed in Schuamann’s piece with Carter’s attempt to mold a long continuous melody.

Morlot’s conducting seemed much improved for the Schumann symphony. Perhaps it is unfair to judge him by the Carter piece as it is technically difficult and probably required a more experienced conductor. Morlot seemed much less mechanical in how he approached the symphony. The orchestra generally played with precision, although there were a couple of instances that some in the orchestra came in early (this also happened with the Brahms piece). The dynamic range could be broader for my taste.

I like the Brahms Violin concerto, even though it is a bit long at 40 minutes. The piece was dedicated to the great violinist Joseph Joachim whom Brahms consulted extensively.

Zimmerman plays a 1711 Stradivarius which once belonged to Fritz Kreisler. I have heard quite a few Strads before (every well-known violinist, except Midori, seems to play one), but this has to be the best sounding one I have heard so far. While the volume wasn’t loud, it projected very well against the orchestra; at no point was the violin drowned out by the orchestra.

Zimmerman had a good technical approach to the concerto, and made a beautiful sound with his violin. The Joachim cadenza was unfortunately interrupted by much coughing in the audience. The Brahms violin concerto is a virtuoso piece with a great orchestra part. The relative long introduction in the first movement (Allegro non troppo) can stand on its own as an orchestral piece. It was a bit disappointing that towards the end of the first movement things sounded a bit stretched.

According to the Program Notes, Sarasate once said he would never play the Brahms concerto because of his view that during the second movement (Adagio) the violinist “would stand there … while the oboe plays the only melody in the entire work.” Indeed the oboe had a nice melodic introduction, but this has to be one of the most beautiful movements in the violin repertoire, with well-balanced violin and orchestra parts. And it was quite well done tonight.

The third movement (Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – Poco piu presto) began with a strong statement from the violin. Wallace talked about the use of “triple stops” first popularized by Bruch about 10 years before, and one could indeed hear the similarities. As with many last movements in concertos, this movement was the most exciting of all, but the orchestra playing was a bit muddled.

For the encore, Zimmerman played a slow Bach partita (not completely sure). It showcased the beautiful sound of the Strad, but was a relatively easy piece (technically and musically).

A concert that by-and-large lived up to its potential.