Saturday, September 25, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor; Itzhak Perlman, Violin. September 24, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1, Seat W103 ($65.00).

Don Juan, Tone Poem after Nikolaus Lenau, Op. 20 (1888) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64 (1800) by Mendelssohn (1809-47)
Metaboles (1961-64) by Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916)
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1940-43) by Hindemith (1895-1963)

This is the first series of concerts by the Philharmonic this season (not counting the opening program), the program notes say the concert lasts 1:45 (including intermission), it ended up being 2:15. The pieces lasted longer than what the program notes say: 18 min, 27 min, 17 min and 20 min in order; the intermission was longer than the usual 20 minutes also, they had trouble getting the audience back into the auditorium. Which was okay, as we still had ample time to take the train home.

The program notes were more detailed than usual. Since it is the same program annotator (James Keller), I imagine it is an outlier instead of the new normal. In any case, Strauss’s tone poem describes the well-known character Don Juan’s conquests of women. Some noble, some ”common tramps” (supposedly a remark made by Strauss himself during a Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal), and depicted by various episodes in the music. I didn’t try to count how many different “women” were in the music, but enough. Don Juan met his end with a violent sound in the orchestra followed by a few measures of decrescendo, all fair enough in the case of a tone poem. Gilbert says this is a difficult orchestra virtuoso piece; and he is right as the New York Philharmonic sounded muddled and chaotic on many occasions.

Mendelssohn’s violin concerto is a staple of the violin repertoire. Considered a show piece with nice melodies, it is always enjoyable. Difficult, but definitely within the abilities of a good violinist. With Perlman as the soloist, what can go wrong? A lot, it turns out.

It was a lackluster performance, especially from Perlman. The first movement (Allegro molto appassionato) began well enough, but soon afterwards he began to lose it. Stray notes seldom happen in a virtuoso performance, and soon he had a couple of them. That must have caught the audience by surprise, and probably shook Perlman’s confidence as he began to have some intonation problems. The second movement (Andante) was uninspired, and some of the double stops were not as clear as they could be. The performance was redeemed somewhat by the third movement (Allegretto ma non troppo – Allegro molto) where Perlman got to showcase some of his well-known “light touch” (my terminology). Anne didn’t think it was that good – she complained about the soloist and orchestra not being in sync.

The audience still jumped up and gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation. I am beginning to have my doubts about the sophistication of the New York concert-going public. One could attribute the applause to (i) it’s the NY Phil and Perlman, so it must be good; or (ii) Perlman has overcome a lot of physical difficulties, so we should always applaud no matter what. I suspect it is the former. Perlman may just be coasting (after all, he probably starting playing this concerto when he was six) or he has lost some of his touch. Boos from the audience may be a wake-up call to send him back to the practice studio, or for him to concentrate his career on teaching and conducting.

Henri Dutilleux is described as one of the most important composers working today, per Gilbert. Since there are so few of them (I tend to forget them immediately), that may well be true. In any case, I couldn’t make heads or tails from Dutilleux’s discussion of the title: Metaboles means (i) passage connecting the conjunct and disjunct systems; (ii) a stylistic figure in the field of rhetoric; (iii) a term in physiology. Played without pause, the 18 or so minute piece actually consists of five movements: Incantatoire, Lineare, Obsessionnel, Torpide, and Flamboyant. Other than the last one, I don’t know any of the words. The orchestration is rich, and the sound was full. Supposedly each of the first four movements highlighted a particular section (woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion) and Gilbert did ask some members to take a bow, I couldn’t quite tell.

Hindemith’s piece was a lot easier to grasp (grasping doesn’t mean enjoying). It consists of four movements: Allegro; Turandot, Scherzo (Moderato); Andantino; and Marsch. I take it Marsch means March (which it sounded like), but have no idea what Turandot means, other than it has nothing to do with Puccini’s eponymous opera. In any case, the first movement sounds like a “regular” orchestra piece, the second begins with a quiet introduction by the percussion, the third starts with a flute solo and is characterized by different sections of the orchestra repeating a theme in order, the last movement begins with the brass section and somehow reminds me of the march in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. Overall an okay piece, but not a composition or performance that would make you sit of the edge of your seat.

For this concert, Gilbert didn’t need music for the Strauss and Hindemith pieces, but needed it for Mendelssohn and Dutilleux. A little surprising on the Mendelssohn since he is a violinist himself. We also noticed that they have a young timpanist/percussionist (Kyle Zerna) and Qiang Tu vacated the chair he had last couple of years – wonder what happened there.

I didn’t expect to say this about the first New York Philharmonic performance of the season: uninspiring and disappointing. We are going next week to hear Mahler’s sixth, let’s hope it goes much much better.

As of today (Saturday 9/25) I haven’t found a review of the performance yet. I will link to it when I see it.