Saturday, June 07, 2008

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. May 31, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center – Orchestra 1 (Seat L8, $59).


Three Etudes for Piano (1915; orch. 1992) by Debussy (1862-1918)/M. Jarrell (b. 1958)

Rendering for Orchestra (1988-90) by Schubert-Berio (1797-1828; 1925-2003)

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, Emperor (1809) by Beethoven (1770-1827)

The current issue of Playbill talks about David Robertson skills as a programmer. The program he chose for tonight is certainly unusual, which doesn't necessarily means good. The first two pieces were just baffling. One would think the orchestra has better music to do.

Debussy's Three Etudes for Piano were described as masterpieces by the program annotator. They are (i) for repeated notes, (ii) for opposing sonorities, and (iii) for chords. The transcription into orchestra music by Jarrell might have been great accomplishments for a composer, but still leaves one with the question of “why?”

Robertson illustrated what Berio did to compose Rendering. He would have the piano play out a simple line and then the orchestra play Berio's rendition. Which sounded reasonable enough. The program lists the three movements (Allegro, Andante, and Allegro) which would lead one to expect a Schubert-like symphony. But when the entire work is played, one noticed very little Schubert in the music; the piece sounded very contemporary, which I should have expected in hindsight. Alas, this piece is also about three times as long as the Debussy Etudes. This is probably a symphony only a musicologist would love.

Anne was relaying an interview WQXR had with Emmanuel Ax, who describes himself as lazy and needs to force himself to get the several hours of practice in every morning. We heard Ax several years ago at Tanglewood and enjoyed the performance despite all the distractions associated with an open concert hall (The Koussevitzky Shed).

How honest! Beethoven's concerts are difficult for amateurs technically, but are usually not a problem with professionals, much less someone of Ax's stature and reputation. But he managed to put in a technically flawed performance, botching many notes, some of the runs just sounded muddy. It is a tribute to him as a musician that the overall performance was quite enjoyable. Actually the audience clamored for more and Ax played (I believe) a Chopin piece as an encore. I have to contrast Ax with Andre Watts whom we heard recently. Admittedly Beethoven No. 1 is much easier than No. 5, but still Watts managed to make the music come across clearly, with a well-defined structure.

Overall though, I still find the concert quite enjoyable. That may yet prove the genius of Robertson's programming, or it may just be my feeling good after two concerts today.

See the New York Times review. It contains some additional interesting facts about the Schubert piece. The reviewer is obviously a fan of Robertson's.

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