Sunday, October 17, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. October 16, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Orchestra 3 Center (Seat HH103, $60).

Passacaglia, Op. 1 (1908) by Webern (1883-1945).
Concerto in D manor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 (1878-79) by Brhams (1833-97)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85) by Brahms.

It was interesting (to me) how I got to go to this concert. Anne and I had booked tickets to this as part of a “pick your own” series, but we exchanged the tickets for another concert since Anne was going to go to Los Angeles. I didn’t note down – and thus forgot – that the Yangs also had tickets to this event but was reminded that morning. Since I was looking for something to do, I decided to head up to NYC in the early afternoon to see if reasonably priced tickets were available. (A bit foolhardy on my part since there were only about 50 left that morning per When I got to Lincoln Center, I found out only tickets in the $100 and higher range were available, and I didn’t feel like paying that much. I decided to wait for the Yangs - did quite a bit of reading in the Rubinstein Atrium, had dinner with them (at Ollie’s), and then see if anyone was selling tickets at the last minute. Surprisingly, not too many. At about 7:40pm this gentleman offered two tickets for sale, he would part with one for $75, but accepted my offer of $60. The seat is quite good, and the ticket price says 0 (probably a comp). Turns out he sold the other one for $40; oh well …

Webern was Schoenberg’s other famous student and an important member of the Second Viennese School. Anne and I heard Berg’s Lyric Suite selections a few days ago, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and I found it okay but not memorable. This particular composition by Webern (his Op. 1) was composed while he was still a student, and follows the “passacaglia” format (per Gilbert, a baroque musical form with a bass-line theme spun into different variations.) For the Webern piece there are 23 variations plus a coda. While I found the theme in and of itself rather uninspiring, at least I could follow (most of) the variations. In this instance Webern is more tonal than Berg, though not by much.

Zukerman was a major reason why I wanted to go to this concert. Overall it was a good performance, but not quite up to my expectations. At first there was this broken bow hair that seemed to bother Zukerman quite a bit, and the initial violin part was quite long so he couldn’t yank it out for a while. But he had quite a bit of intonation problem; could it be playing both the violin and the viola can cause some “muscle memory” problems? And the violin sounded out of tune (indeed he tuned it again after the first movement.) Most puzzling was the orchestra (especially the brass and woodwind) seemed to be tuned to a different pitch. Perhaps my hearing is deteriorating, in which case I shouldn’t be able to tell.

One pleasant surprise was I could distinctly hear the violin part for most of the performance. Perhaps it was the location of my seat, or it was the solo violin. The violin Zukerman plays is a Guarnerius and has a timbre very different from a Stradivarius. Warm and full rather than brilliant and soaring, usually considered more suitable for chamber music but worked very well in this instance.

After the undeserved multiple curtain calls evinced by the enthusiastic audience, Zukerman began playing Brahm’s Lullaby. One kept hoping he would launch into some virtuoso variations on the theme, but it was not to be; he just humored us with the good tone of his instrument and didn’t bother to complete the piece. I found that somewhat disrespectful on his part.

The Brahms Symphony is a familiar one. The beginning melody (descending thirds followed by ascending fifths) is relatively unremarkable as a tune but Brahms somehow managed to mold it into a very interesting movement. Interestingly I am very familiar with the first three movements (Allegro non troppo, Andante moderato, Allegro giocoso) but not so much with the fourth (Allegro energico e passionate – Piu allegro). The last movement is also in passacaglia form although the 32 variations are much richer than Webern’s. Perhaps it is to be expected given the different stages and maturity levels of the two composers? Gilbert was quite expressive in terms of forming the phrases, and in most instances he was successful.

So far this season my experience with the New York Philharmonic by and large has not been exhilarating; let’s hope it improves with additional attendance. The New York Times Review describes Zukerman’s performance as “you never know quite what you will get.”

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