Sunday, February 28, 2010

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, Conductor; Gil Shaham, Violin. February 27, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat V5, $58).

Suite from Ma Mere I’Oye (Mother Goose) (1908-1910; 1911) by Ravel (18751937).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (1939-49/1948) by Barber (1910-81).
The Wooden Prince: A Dancing-Play in One Act, to a Libretto by Bela Balazs, Op. 13 (1914-17) by Bartok (1881-1945).

This is on paper an interesting program, it consists of relatively obscure pieces all composed during the 20th century. One of the pieces (one by Bartok) had only been performed by the New York Philharmonic once, and that was in 1975.

The Ravel piece consists of five movements: Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty; Tom Thumb; Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; Conversations of Beauty and the Beast; and Apotheosis, the Enchanted Garden. It was originally written as a piano four hands for two of Ravel’s family friends but they were too shy to perform it in public, so the premiere was done by someone else. A few years later Ravel scored the piece for an orchestra.

The first three movements were kind of so-so, with not much happening. Pavanes are usually pleasant sounding slow dances, tonight’s wasn’t all that noticeable. The dynamics were quite a bit marked during the last two movements, they felt a bit incongruent given how the first three movements sounded though. We heard this piece conducted by Maazel in September, 2008. Looking back at that review, I have to conclude (on the basis of that review alone, since I have no recollection of the performance) tonight’s was probably an improvement. In Maazel’s defense, the New York Times, in one of its rare praises for him, describes the performance as a “beautifully constrained account.”

The Program Notes are not kind to Barber’s Violin Conerto, even though there is quite a bit of hedging in the writeup. There is an interesting dustup between Samuel Fels, who commissioned the concerto, and Barber on whether the concerto was good enough or too difficult for the intended soloist Iso Briselli. In any case, Barber got his $1000, and Briselli also got vindicated somehow. The overall impression it got me was two movements that were too simple (Allegro and Andante) and one that was virtuoso but short and didn’t quite belong (Presto in moto perpetuo).

So, I decided to listen with an open mind, even though I didn’t know if that was possible given the bias that had already formed in my opinion. The overall performance was much better than expected, though far from either brilliant or deeply musical. Shaham’s Stradivarius somehow got overwhelmed often by the orchestra, and his play just sounded a bit off. Overall it was an acceptable performance, but I expected a better overall experience than I got today. We were seated in Row V which had a good view of the stage (especially with binoculars). While standing there idle Shaham had this hunched stance and an open mouth; he was all serious when he was playing, though, and moved back and forth quite a bit.

The story behind Bartok’s The Wooden Prince is quite simple. A prince falls in love with a princess and tries to draw her attention with his wooden staff carved into a puppet. The princess keeps on ignoring it until he adorns the staff sequentially with his robe, his crown, and finally his hair. And then she falls in love with the wooden prince much to the prince’s dismay. A Fairy takes pity on him and makes him attractive to the princess. Now the princess has to sacrifice her crown before they can fall in love. This is done in many scenes played without interruption: [Prelude]; Dance of the Princess in the Forest; Dance of the Trees; Dance of the Waves; Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Puppet; The Princess Pulls and Tugs at Him (the Wooden Prince) and Tries to Make Him Dance; She Tries to Attract Him (the Real Prince) with a Seductive Dance; Frightened, the Princess Attempts to Hasten to Him (the Real Prince) but the Forest Stops Her; [Postlude].

The scenario creator Bela Balazs likens this to a woman preferring the poem to the poet, or the picture to the painter.

As with the first two pieces, I also didn’t know what to expect of this piece. Bartok has three pieces for the stage, and I have also heard The Miraculous Mandarin before (a couple of times, actually.) This is relatively long at an advertised 45 minutes (a bit longer in actuality). We were quite pleasantly surprised that the libretto (per the New York Times, the original scenario of Balazs) was displayed as the music was played, so we could clearly correlate the action in the orchestra with what we could imagine was going on. I can see how a creative choreographer can then turn this into movements, a stage designer to sketch out the scenery, and the director to put the ballet together. The downside is the words illustrate how silly the story is (“contorted” is the word used in the Program Notes.) Since most of my jet-lagged brain was used to imagine the scenes and dance movements, not enough was left to appreciate or analyze the music itself. Overall though, I didn’t come away very satisfied as I kept telling myself it was a stupid story.

So tonight’s was a program that had a potential to be of great appeal but ended up not living up to that potential. Using my newly coined analogy in comparing disappointing meals with disappointing music performances, this is better than a disappointing meal.

Anne and I both thought the applause at the conclusion was only lukewarm. The New York Times review was very positive. Naturally, as this is a publication that would have liked Robertson to be the successor to Maazel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Concerning the Barber violin concerto, new information about the commission is now available on It is a fascinating story.