Sunday, May 27, 2012

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Glenn Dicterow, violin. May 26, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier (Seat BB107, $70).

Carnival, Op. 92 (1891) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. posth., BB 48a (1907-08) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-78) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

It feels like it’s been a while that we last saw the New York Philharmonic.  It was actually April 20, a little over a month ago.  There have been six intervening concerts since we heard them last, perhaps that was one reason; the fact these concerts happened at other venues also contributed to my sense of coming home after being absent for a while.  Not something I would have expected.  This is also a “coming home” of some sort for the orchestra as they just completed a tour of the West Coast.

I was wondering what Dvorak’s Carnival would sound like, and reading the Program Notes didn’t help.  It did explain this was the second overture envisioned in Dvorak’s triptych of Nature, Life, and Love, and it even had an excerpt of a phrase called the “Theme of Nature.”  Turns out this was one of the more familiar pieces by Dvorak (perhaps just second to his New World Symphony in popularity).  It was fast, fun, furious, and most enjoyable.  The tempo was extremely fast and at times not everyone seemed to be able to keep up; to my taste they could slow it down somewhat and nothing would be taken away from the performance.

Bela Bartok wrote two violin concertos, with the second one being the much more popular one.  Indeed, while the first was completed in 1908, it wasn’t premiered until May, 1958 (Program Notes also says New York Philharmonic Premiere was in February, 1955, so I am a bit confused.)  When Bartok began the piece he had his girlfriend Stefi Geyer in mind.  While he was working on the concerto, he also began to have a discussion of his religion with her that eventually led to the breakup of the relationship.  Nonetheless, Bartok gave Geyer a copy of the score with the inscription “My Confession: For Stefi, from the times that were happy ones.  Although even that was only half-happiness.”  And the work wasn’t performed until 1958, a year and half after Geyer died (see confusion above.)  A good story-teller can probably make a great screenplay out of this.

How is the music?  Per the Program Notes, Bartok describes the first movement (Andante sostenuto [attacca]) as a depiction of an “idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward”; the second (Allegro giocoso), a character that was “cheerful, witty, amusing,”  Given the background, one can describe the piece as melancholic, wistful, and regretful also.  I frankly didn’t get a lot out of it, although I was surprised how classical the last couple of minutes sounded.

In keeping with the “coming home” theme, having Dicterow come on stage doesn’t quite generate the excitement of other soloists.  He is a familiar face, and we often hear him do solo lines during the performances anyway.  As far as I could tell, he did a great job with the piece.  Lines were clean, technique flawless, and intonation great (much better than usual).   The violin’s sound was a bit weak against the full orchestra at times, but quite adequate (first tier seats don’t get the best acoustics, anyway.)  Yet every time he performs, I wonder about the choice of music.  Perhaps he is trying to establish a reputation as an interpreter of obscure or modern violin music; if so, he still has ways to go.  The applause was quite enthusiastic, and undoubtedly, or unfortunately, will encourage him to continue down this path.

Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony was written about ten years before his fifth (which we heard at our last concert.)  Both symphonies have the word “fate” associated with it, and are both described as depressing.  However, Tchaikovsky’s mental outlook must have worsened a lot over ten years as the fourth sounded positively euphoric compared to the fifth (well, that was going a little too far.)  This symphony shares many of the characteristics of the later symphony, including a somewhat similar theme that gets worked many times.  The first movement (Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima) is the most substantial, taking up 18 of the 45 or so minutes.  The second movement (Andantino in modo di canzone) began with an introduction by the oboe that got repeated in other sections multiple times.  The third movement (Scherzo.  Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro) was true to its description until close to the end.  It felt like a movement from a string serenade.  It continued without pause to the last movement – Finale: Allegro con fuoco – which was a bit too hurried in my view.  The audience went crazy and Gilbert introduced the different sections of the orchestra as he took his deserved bows.

It is interesting to contrast how Gilbert and Blomstedt led the two different symphonies.  Both pieces require a competent orchestra, and the conductor can decide how much control he wants to have on the performance.  Gilbert is more reserved (relatively) and in doing so managed a more nuanced rendition of the work.  Blomstedt seemed to be happy to let the orchestra take the lead, like a rider letting the horse go during the final stretch.  Were this a competition, my nod would go to Gilbert.  On the other hand, Blomstedt can take you on a more exhilarating ride.

One word about the brass section.  In general they did well, but did botch a couple of places.  In the big scheme of things this was not very important, but the mistakes (which happened early) did stick out.

This review was written in a hurry since I wanted to get it done before our 11-day trip (leaving later today.)  I wonder if I will have different or additional thoughts when I get to think more about it.

The New York Times Review is very positive.  The reviewer describes the Bartok piece as the program’s “most substantial draw.”  I wonder how many people came tonight because of this.

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