Thursday, December 10, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; David Fray, piano. December 4, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB13, $59).

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB114 (1936) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1876-1937).
La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques (The Sea: Three Symphonic Sketches) (1903-05; rev. 1910) by Debussy (1862-1918).

I usually enjoy Bartok’s music, so I was looking at today’s performance with some anticipation. The Program Notes talks about Bartok’s meticulous instructions on how the orchestra should be organized, and that there are to be two separate string sections; this only adds to the intrigue. Indeed Dicterow and Maples are seated on opposite ends of the stage. I am sure there are more string players than usual (although I didn’t do a count.)

This is a piece written for strings, percussion, and celesta. There is also a piano on board. Given the relative sizes of the instruments, and the frequency at which the piano came in, I am surprised it didn’t get equal billing.

The music is in four movements, basically slow-fast-slow-fast. [Andante tranquillo; Allegro; Adagio; Allegro molto.] The slow sections sounded very flat, the fast sections were much more exciting. Not too many melodies (even for Bartok) to speak of. There were several passages that had considerable flourish, but didn’t quite make up for the overall lack of excitement.

We had a chance to hear Ravel’s Concerto several months ago, played by Uchida with Muti conducting. But we were caught in traffic in Jersey City and missed the first part of the concert. Given how recently we heard the Debussy piece (later in the program), there is this distinct feeling that the New York Philharmonic is recycling its program at an alarming pace. Say it ain’t so.

Anyway, David Fray is a young French pianist (not quite 30 years old) that somehow got to be a rather hot commodity. The Program Notes didn’t talk about any major competitions that he won, or he had a breakthrough performance as a last minute substitute. So it is a bit surprising how he got to be part of the subscription series. Interestingly, he used a “regular” chair with a back, rather than one of these leather-clad piano benches. Too young to have a weak back, and his arms don’t look that long that he can do the whole keyboard sitting in place.

The first movement (Allegramente) starts with the piano accompanying the orchestra by a lot of glissandos, which is quite pleasing to the ear. Nonetheless, it didn’t generate the excitement one would get from (say) Lang Lang playing a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. Interestingly, the Basque theme at the beginning of the movement sounded very oriental to me. The second movement (Adagio assai) has the English Horn playing a rather long duet with the soloist. And there are a lot of hand crossovers that make both for an interesting sight and an interesting sound. The third movement (Presto) is again fast, and Fray manages to play the entire chromatic range without leaving his chair.

Ravel himself was a pianist, and he wanted to retract his dedication of the piece to Marguerite Long so he could do the premiere himself. At the end, Long performed the premiere because of Ravel’s health and scheduling issues (not enough time to practice his own composition, evidently.) The Program Notes also say Ravel started Conservatory as a piano student but was asked to withdraw because he wasn’t deemed to have enough panache to be an outstanding concert pianist. I am being harsh here, but these words seem to describe David Fray quite well. His technique and sound seem very good, but somehow one doesn’t get much spirit from the performance.

By some account Lar Mer is one of Debussy’s two best know orchestral compositions. The other one is The Fawn Afternoon which we heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra play last week in Symphony Hall. I heard La Mer at New York Philharmonic not too long ago, and had to admit that I couldn’t quite make heads or tails from it. Today it was much better though. Although I don’t think the composition evokes the sea as much as Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (the overture is still one of the best seascapes I have heard), one can definitely tell how the music is painting the pictures.

The three sketches are: From Dawn till Noon on the Sea; Play of the Waves; and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, Salonen was the conductor of Los Angeles Symphony, so I am sure I heard him conduct several times, although I don’t remember any particular concert. We had a chance to hear him a couple of years ago but he had to withdraw because of health reasons. Today’s performance was overall a bit flat for me. The applause from the audience, enthusiastic at times, wasn’t sustained.

It was basically a simple trip for us to make via New Jersey Transit. Today still turns out to be a full day as we had to catch a 6:15 pm flight to San Francisco. I am actually en-route as I type (most of) this review.

The New York Times reviewer loved the conductor and the solosist. Actually it is one of the least negative reviews (not quite the same as the most positive) I have read in that paper.

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