Saturday, April 30, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. April 30, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat W116, $65).

Pagodes from Estampes (Prints), for solo piano (1903) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Coleurs de la Cite Celeste (Colors of the Celestial City) (1963) by Messiaen (1808-92).
Symphony No. 5 (1901-02) by Mahler (1860-1911).

The original program listed all three pieces in the Estampes work, but the insert in the Playbill says only Pagodes will be played, then followed by Coleurs. Our puzzlement was answered later during the concert.

Alan Gilbert first talked about the program, describing how Coleurs is like a slide show, with its abruptly changing scenes. He also said Messiaen was basically a tonal composer, in his own sort of way, and that he liked to put in bird songs in his works. He demonstrated some of the ideas with a couple of passages played by the orchestra. When asked to add something, Emanuel Ax says Pagodes also painted a picture, in this instance of a Chinese city (Anne thought it should be Japanese, given what the program notes says), and one could clearly see things such as tiled roof tops. Well, I suspect for me they have to put the print right in front of me, since I don’t possess the same imagination as these artists evidently do. I am also reminded of what was relayed to me of a particular person with perfect pitch: he sees different colors with different notes. Since I don’t have perfect pitch (although I can get very close to a 440-A on my violin), that sort of discussion is mostly academic for me.

The Debussy piece was quite short at 4 minutes, and a couple of themes were used multiple times. And if you imagine really hard, you can see a city landscape, or convince yourself you do. The oriental pentatonic scale was used. Given how rich some passages sounded, I wonder if Debussy slipped in some other notes from the “western” scale; but I didn’t catch any.

One could make a case that the Messiaen piece isn’t really a piano solo with an ensemble (no strings). The xylophone certainly had a role that was at least as prominent as the piano, although the latter does have several “solo” passages. The transitions are indeed abrupt at times as the music goes from one “frame” to another, however, I didn’t get any colors (or gemstones, for that matter) from it. Also, Messiaen the devout Catholic included many religious overtones in the composition: those also escaped me.

One possible reason for shortening the program for a few minutes was that this was Emanuel Ax’s 100th performance with the Philharmonic, starting from about 35 years ago. The math is right as each program gets repeated 3 or so times during a Philharmonic “run”. To mark the occasion, Ax was awarded the “New York Philharmonic Society Award” which has been given out about 65 times during the orchestra’s 170 years, and there are only 5 living recipients before tonight. The audience applauded enthusiastically. I certainly have enjoyed quite a few of Ax’s performances with this Orchestra.

I was looking forward to the Mahler symphony, probably my favorite among Mahler’s ten symphonies. The last time the New York Philharmonic played this work was in January 2009, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. I attended one of those concerts. I was eager to do some comparisons, even though my memories of the event have faded after a couple years. I did post my thoughts on that performance, though. They were quite brief, but included the phrase “came away very impressed.”

The Symphony also started with the horns coming in quite loud. However, Gilbert seemed to take the first movement’s marking (Funeral March: With measure step. Strict. Like a cortege) a bit too seriously, the tempo was quite strict, and somehow in turn made the music sounded sweeter than I would like. The second movement (Stormily. With greatest vehemence) was done energetically enough. The third movement (Scherzo: Vigorously, not too fast) is the longest, which one usually doesn’t associate with a Scherzo movement. There is quite a bit of slapstick playing, and to my amazement I noticed that the pitch of the slapstick can change (or is it my imagination?). However, sometimes in the flourish of music not everyone was in sync. The fourth movement (Adagietto: Very slow) is well-known. The orchestra slurred the notes a bit too much and sounded too complex for my taste (I like lines clean, and sounds distinct). The last movement (Rondo-Finale: Allegro giocoso. Lively) started well and was quite enjoyable. The whole symphony seemed a little rushed, although it took 70 minutes.

Being a regular Philharmonic subscriber, I would like to think Gilbert’s rendition of the symphony was at least as good as Dudamels, but – alas – I could not say so. I often compare Mahler’s music with changing landscape where you see new things after wandering for a while and turn a corner. What distinguishes a great conductor is the ability to integrate the wanderings into the overall picture. Many passages were done very well tonight, but Gilbert failed to stitch everything together into one coherent piece of work, there being many instances of not knowing where the music would lead.

The audience gave a very enthusiastic applause, though. I guess being able to get through Mahler is no small feat, but I thought the New York crowd was very sophisticated and demanding.

The New York Times review is very positive, calling the Mahler performance “strongly conceived, vigorous.” The reviewer also attributed the shortening of the Ax program to Ax’s conviction that it would sound closer knit together.

When we picked up our car at the garage, the attendant pointed out to us we had a flat tire. This after only 3000 miles on the car, quite frustrating. With the help of Anne (who read the instruction manual) I managed to change the tire in 15 minutes, dropping a lot of sweat in the process. We had to limp home at about 50 mph since this is one of those mini-spares.

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