Friday, July 01, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano. June 29, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat OO06, $27.50).

Waltz from Masquerade (1941) by Khachaturian (1903-78).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874-75; rev. 1889) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Valse de concert No. 2 in F major, Op. 51 (1894) by Glazunov (1865-1936).
Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor (1875) by Borodin (1833-87).

This was one of the Summertime Classics concerts that NY Philharmonic organizes after the end of each concert season. The Yangs had tickets for it, and I decided to join them since Anne was in Washington DC. (Turns out Anne decided to come home early, but she got a ride from Ellie from Metropark, so it all worked out.) I got a discounted ticket from We drove up in Chung Shu’s car, and had a quick dinner at Ollie’s.

This is an all-Russian concert, with a Russian-born pianist. Tovey is the music director of the Vancouver Philharmonic and (as far as I know) has been conducting these Summertime Classics concerts for several years. While I am curious as to why/how he gets a long-term commitment from the organization, I certainly am okay with it. I have seen him a couple of times, and he always talks a bit about the music before it is played; his remarks were pedagogical and funny.

The Waltz by Khachaturian is pleasant to listen to, and as with most waltzes, repeats its themes quite a few times. It was last played by the NY Philharmonic in 1973.

I am very familiar with Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto (as most music listeners are, for sure). Actually I used to be able to hum the entire piece (the melodies, such as they were). I realized to my amazement somewhere in the middle of the performance that I didn’t recall hearing it live ever. It was performed last year at NY Phil by Lang Lang (New Year’s Eve concert).

This concert illustrates why there is a huge difference between listening to a CD and to a live concert. While I knew this is a virtuoso piece from the recording, the live performance gave me a much better idea how technically challenging the music is, and worrying about the soloist stumbling leaves one sitting on the edge of the seat. Most CDs are engineered so extensively that the balance is always perfect; with a live performance, the soloist and orchestra adjust to each other constantly. Also, in the case of this concerto, the music sounded much more discordant than what you hear on a recording.

It was a well-played performance. While Gerstein was born in Russia, he spent a lot of time in the USA, got his education at Boston’s Berklee School and New York’s Manhattan School of Music. He is now an American citizen and holds a teaching position in Germany. I enjoyed especially his dynamic range and phrasing, which made for very interesting listening.

After the intermission, Tovey jokingly told the audience had Glazunov called the Waltz by any other name than the unimaginative “No. 2” it would have been much more popular. I am not sure if had been called (say) “Waltz for Acrobats on the Steppes of Russia” that it would have attracted that many people as a headliner piece. Not that it is not delightful. The work was composed in 1894, and the Program Annotator evidently couldn’t find anything about its early performance history. And this is the first time the New York Philharmonic played the piece.

I probably knew Borodin was a chemist, but didn’t realize (or forgot) that music composition was his part-time job. Interesting. If you ask people what they know of Borodin, the vast majority will probably say he is a composer. Prince Igor is an opera he worked on for many years, but didn’t finish (he died suddenly). The opera was completed eventually by various composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, who made quite a few changes even to parts Borodin wrote. Supposedly these dances were Borodin originals, suffering only minor editing by the subsequent composers. The tune “Strangers in Paradise” is from these dances, and it got repeated several times. It is a lovely tune, played lovelily (?) by the orchestra. I didn’t realize the pace was so fast, though.

As an encore, we heard a movement from The Nutcracker Suite.

A very pleasant way to start the summer, even though weather-wise it feels like the middle of summer already. I wonder why the concert is all-Russian. Last year’s Summertime Classic concert I attended was all-Russian also. The New York Times reviewer is very positive on the performance also. He pointed out there was only one rehearsal before the first performance (we heard the second one), and had more to say about the soloist.

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