Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor; Frank Peter Zimmerman, violin. September 26, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat DD9, $58).

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra (1878-79), Op. 77 by Brahms (1833-97).
Pelleas und Melisande (After the Drama by Maurice Maeterlinck): Symphonic Poem for Orchestra, Op. 5 (1902-03) by Schoenberg (1874-1951).

This is Alan Gilbert's first season. And this was one of the earlier concerts. I have not paid attention to what the critics think of him so far, and will search for a review after I finish my own.

The first thing you notice is the orchestra seating arrangement is different. With Maazel it was (left to right) violin 1, violin 2, cello, and viola. The new arrangement is violin 1, cello, viola, and violin 2. So now the double basses are now on the left part of the stage (from audience's viewpoint) rather than the right. I guess every conductor has the right to seat the sections that he is comfortable with. Nonetheless, when Gilbert guest-conducted he didn't seem to need his usual seating arrangement. Also, the concertmaster Dicterow yielded his position to Sheryl Maples, and reappeared when the Schoenberg piece was played. So it wasn't just a Maazel thing.

On the way over, I was frustrated that I couldn't hum the Brahms tunes. I was sure I was very familiar with it. Of course they all came back to me after listening to the playing.

Zimmerman is relatively young. Somehow the Stradivarious he played (made in 1711 and owned by Kreisler at one point) didn't carry as well as I thought it should. Nonetheless the performance was quite enjoyable. In contrast to Brahms' violin sonatas, the concerto is a very virtuoso piece. Zimmerman knocked them out with ease. The concerto was on the long side at about 40 minutes, and the first movement was a good 20 minutes in duration. The performance was crisp, coherent, and quite thrilling.

The violin concerto consists of three movements: Allegro non troppo; Adagio; and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace - Poco piu presto. The second movement famously begins with an oboe melody. Quite similar to one of his piano concertos.

Zimmerman did do an encore piece. I couldn't hear him well, but he described it as what Paganini might have written if he had visited America. Turns out it was variations (quite a few of them) on "My country tis of thee" (or "God save our gracious queen" if one is from the UK.) While entertaining (and impressive), it was a bit long.

Gilbert started the second half by demonstrating with the orchestra the different leitmotifs used in Schoenberg's piece. As Schoenberg himself remarked, there were just too many of them: each of the main characters in the story, love and a range of other emotions, murder, conversations (usually depicted by intertwining motifs), and so on. Since none of them would prove easily hummable, I found them difficult to follow during the actual performance. One motif (I wish I remember whom/what it depicted) kept repeating itself throughout the piece.

The story is simple enough. Melisande marries Golaud but loves his stepbrother Pelleas. Pelleas wants to do the honorable thing and leave but is drawn to Melisande instead. Golaud kills Pelleas, Melisande dies after giving birth.

This work was composed when Schoenberg was 28 years old, before he firmly established his 12-tone music, and in that sense didn't sound like him at all. I may end up enjoying it more if I remember the leitmotifs. As it was I was rather lost. Without that storyline the music just sounded so-so.

Gilbert plans to introduce quite a bit of "unpopular" music to the season, and this was one of them. So far I am not getting it. Let's hope it gets better.

For completeness, the piece (about 40 minutes) consists of four movements played without pauses: opening sonata-form expanse, scherzo, slow movement, and a finale.

The New York Times reviewer loved it.

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