Sunday, December 11, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Daniel Harding, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. December 9, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 Center (Seat GG106, $70.)

Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22 (1988/93) by Oliver Knussen (b. 1952).
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 35 (1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Because of our recent travels, I didn’t pay much attention to this concert until I got to Avery Fisher Hall.  Actually I thought it was going to be a performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony!  I was pleasantly surprised when I found out about the details of tonight’s program – not that I would mind if indeed Mahler was going to be on the program.

The first piece was written by Knussen to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas’s first performance as London Symphony’s principal conductor.  There is not a plot to the music, just a virtuoso piece to show off the conductor’s (and the orchestra’s) skills.  It serves that purpose quite well, as there is a cacophony of sounds that connoted a joyous celebration.  On the other hand, I have forgotten most of it as I am typing this blog two days later.  I wished I had read the Program Notes earlier and had known that the theme is based on the notes LSO-MTT (that would be A-E flat-G-E-B-B).  The sequence is atonal enough that I couldn’t get it in my head as the piece was being performed.   The Program Notes says the piece is three minutes long, I think it lasted close to four (not that it matters.)

I have heard Joshua Bell many times before, and while I by-an-large enjoyed his playing, I often found reason to quibble with his performances; sometimes I complained about his intonation, sometimes I complained about the sound of his Strad.  Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.  While Bell would (or should) be the first one to say it wasn’t a perfect performance, it came close.  And I may have finally found a seat in Avery Fisher that is perfect!  At least that’s how I felt after the first movement (Allegro moderato – Moderato assai).  The movement is among the best balanced live performance of a concerto I have ever heard, with the violin and the orchestra both coming across clearly.  An interesting thing about the concerto that I didn’t know: the premiere soloist Adolf Brodsky actually worked on it for more than two years before the first performance, and Leopold Auer – the original soloist Tchaikovsky had in mind – after first pronouncing it unplayable eventually became a believer.

This concerto is always a safe choice if you can pull it off technically.  Kind of like Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony choosing Mahler No. 5.   The demands on the artists are great, the effect ismesmerizing, and the melodies are captivating.  The audience broke out in applause after the first movement, which doesn’t happen that often.

Perhaps unfortunately for the performers, the first movement is a hard act to follow.  Indeed the second and third movements (Canzonetta - Andante; Finale – Allegro vivacissimo) don’t elicit nearly the same sense of awe.  There were balance problems here and there, and the violin was overwhelmed at times.  If these comprised the entire concerto, it would not have been as exciting an overall experience.  I do have a bit of quibble with the cadenza, which is extremely difficult: it dragged a bit.

I think I was a sophomore in college when I first heard the introductory bassoon theme to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  It hit home how an atonal line that is close to unsingable can be so catchy.   I am quite sure I have heard the suite several times, although most of it still sounded new.  But I am certain I have never seen it staged as a ballet (or was even aware of a ballet performance); I wonder why, the story line is not nearly as controversial or sensational as when the ballet was first staged in Paris where it caused a near-riot.

In any case, I enjoyed the performance and had fun trying to match up the music with the different scenes described in the Program Notes.  For completeness they are as follows.  Part One: The Adoration of the Earth: Introduction; Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescent Girls); Mock Abduction; Spring Rounds; Ritual of Rival Tribes; Procession of the Sage; The Adoration of the Earth (the Sage); Dance of the Earth.  Part Two: The Sacrifice: Introduction; Mystical Cycle of the Young Girls; Glorification of the Chosen One; Evocation of the Ancestors; Ritual Action of the Ancestors; Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen One).  The Program Notes provides further help with a description of the choreography.  To me these constitute a plot, despite the statement “the piece has no plot.”

This is the second time we heard Harding conduct.  His movements are quite exaggerated, but he manages a good sound.

Today was a gridlock alert day, so we took the train in.  Everything worked well, we had a few minutes to spare when we got to Penn Station for our return trip.

The New York Times review is a bit on the lazy side, in my opinion.

1 comment:

Kevin T. Keith said...

Just came across this blog. Love it!

I was in the audience the same night you were - in the nosebleed boxes, I'm afraid. I thought the violin was sometimes overplayed by the orchestra in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky piece, as well as the later ones. I was also surprised by the first-movement applause. It's indeed rare, but I thought deserved. I just couldn't be sure if they were appreciating the bravura performance or simply so unsophisticated that they didn't know the convention regarding applauding between movements (unlikely at Avery Fischer Hall, but . . .). I had no quibbles with the later movements other than the issue of balance, but I am not as knowledgeable a critic as you.

I had much the same reaction to the Stravinsky as you. I knew it had been a ballet but I have also never seen it performed. That would be a lot of fun.

Thanks for an interesting chance to compare notes.