Monday, June 28, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor. June 26, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier (Seat CC18, $48).

Al largo (2010) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958) (World Premiere).
Missa solemnis, Op. 123 (1819-23) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Christine Brewer, Soprano; Jane Henschel, Mezzo-Soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor; Eric Ownes, Bass-Baritone; New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director.

We were having a quiet few days at home, and decided to go to New York to see if we can get a couple of these discounted tickets at the Atrium (turns out they temporarily moved to Alice Tully Hall) for tonight’s concert. In fact it was going to be the last performance of the regular season. Before we left we saw from the website that they still had quite a few seats left, and the auditorium was pretty full for the concert, so somehow they managed to sell most of their tickets.

We had a few extra hours in New York and walked down to Columbus Circle to take a look at this Museum of Art and Design. Their exhibition titled “Live or Dead?” was quite interesting. One of the exhibits was a copy of a scroll/painting in the Wuxi, China museum. The copy was done by casting shadows of leaves, straws, and other natural materials onto an opaque piece of glass. Pretty clever and quite nicely done. The exhibits were reasonably interesting but I don’t see how they can draw enough of a crowd to generate any appreciable income.

After a simple dinner at China Fun, we were ready for the concert.

We heard a Lindberg piece (EXPO) earlier this season, I don’t remember much of it, but I am quite sure I wasn’t particularly fond of it. (A review of my blog confirms this.) Tonight’s piece, alas, was to be 25 minutes long. “Al largo” is a contrived title that doesn’t quite fit the music no matter how you interpret it (slow, far away from the coast, open sea, etc.) The composer makes the claim of “this is the fastest music I’ve ever written, yet deep down there is a feeling of a very slow undertone and a very slow momentum …” I didn’t find the music fast (perhaps he generally writes very slowly?) and certainly didn’t catch the slow undertone. The piece at least contained many interesting and exuberant passages, although I couldn’t figure out how they fitted together. Overall the best statement I can make about the piece is it felt 25 minutes long.

Beethoven took a lot of time to write this mass, and actually missed several deadlines, including the installation of his patron Archduke Rudolph as a Cardinal. The Program Notes also says the score was released in print at a time close to the composer’s death (1827). So it took quite a while to get things published a couple of centuries ago also. In any case, I didn’t know of this work’s existence until this concert season.

I wholeheartedly agree this piece is uniquely Beethoven. Even though I’m sure he didn’t use such tempo marking for a mass, there were quite a few passages of “Allegro con brio” in there. The demands on the chorus seemed particularly great, and the New York Choral Artists did very well. There were a couple of places (e.g., at the end of Gloria) that I really felt applauses were warranted.

The sections of the mass are: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The words are standard, but I found the performance quite moving in a spiritual sense. While in college I knew this Christian friend who was offended when choirs sing sacred music to get people into a reflective mood. Some of that may be true, but I nonetheless don’t find that objectionable at all. This is after all the reason why sacred music gets written.

The concertmaster Glen Dicterow played the solo violin in Benedictus. It was a bit unsteady and disappointing. For someone with perfect pitch (per an earlier Program Notes) he certainly missed quite a few notes. The overall movement was still quite enjoyable.

Gilbert claims there are these secular elements in the music to make one wonder if there were hints of Beethoven searching for his relationship with faith. He points to the military elements in Agnus Dei as examples of “secular elements seem[ing] to take over.” There are indeed march-like phrases, but I don’t think they are nearly strong enough to make Gilbert’s case. I realize I am making this statement after hearing the music once, while Gilbert studied it carefully.

A few interesting items. There was this lady cellist sitting next to the principal, we wonder if she was auditioning for a job. Also, Thomas Stacey, who usually plays the English Horn, was playing the oboe for the Beethoven piece. I am sure he is quite good at it, just that I had never seen it until now. This piece was last performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1999, and Christine Brewer sang the soprano part also.

The New York Times gave the Beethoven performance a generally positive review. The review of the Lindberg piece was a bit more mixed.

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