Saturday, June 23, 2012

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano; New York Choral Artists. June 22, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat P106, $70.)

Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K.482 (1785) by Mozart (1756-91).
Mass in C minor, Great, K.427 (1782-83) by Mozart.

Jennifer Zetlan, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, Mezzo-soprano; Paul Appleby, Tenor; Joshua Hopkins, Baritone.
Joseph Flummerfelt, Director, New York Choral Artists

After dropping off some items at church for the garage sale on Saturday, we went to the Yangs and got a ride from them into the city.  Being a summer Friday afternoon, traffic was quite bad.  We navigated through side streets of Jersey City to get in the Holland Tunnel, and then had to crawl along for a while because of an accident on West Side Highway.  The trip took over two hours, and we only had 15 minutes or so to gulp down a sandwich purchased at the Expresso Bar in Avery Fisher Hall.

Other than a few “special events” scheduled for next week, this is the final series for the season.  Ax, being the artist-in-residence for next year, is a natural pick as the solo artist.  Most people think of a mass as choral music accompanied by an orchestra, thus I find it a bit interesting that the final program of the season does not have the orchestra play a dominant role.  One could psycho-analyze this in depth, or just sit back and enjoy the program, which I chose to do.

I have always enjoyed Ax’s playing.  Technically flawed sometimes, but the musicality always came across.  This is the first Mozart concerto I heard him play, though.  The Program Notes mentions this interesting correlation between Mozart’s popularity and the number of piano concertos he wrote during any given year.  Makes sense as Mozart wrote the concertos mostly with himself as the soloist in mind.  Three were written in 1785, a decline from prior years – and Mozart was not quite 30 years old.  I often make the remark that Mozart’s music comes across as a bit repetitious, this concerto does not.  Actually the first two movements (Allegro and Andante) sounded downright un-Mozartian to me.  The Allegro [Rondo] third movement did exhibit a lot of Mozart characteristics; however, it was a delight, especially at the relatively fast tempo taken.  Ax played his own cadenzas, since none that Mozart wrote survived.

Of all the piano concertos I recall having heard in Avery Fisher Hall, this one had the best balance between the soloist and the orchestra.  That probably had more to do with the seats we got rather than the actual performance itself.  Anne at first complained the piano was too loud, but I convinced her that this was one of the few times a live performance sounded like a CD playing.  Overall it was a great performance: the audience certainly thought so, with the enthusiastic applause at the conclusion, and the attempt of some to do so after the first movement.  If this had happened a few years ago, I would have doubted myself and wondered what did they hear that was so remarkable that I didn’t.  Now I am more confident in attributing their behavior to being star-struck.  The sound was nice and crisp (the way I like Mozart being played), the balance was great (perhaps due to our seats), the virtuosity impressive (especially for a Mozart concerto), the orchestra was competent (I even remarked all they had to do was to come in early and go over a few passages, and they would be ready), so what’s not to like?  For me the disappointment was the overall architecture that Ax was so good at didn’t come across as clearly as I had wished.

The Program Notes had some interesting background about the mass.  It posited that Mozart wrote it to get on the good side of his father Leopold since Mozart married Constanze without Leopold’s blessing.  He did not complete the work either because Leopold seemed to accept Constanze, or because Mozart was too busy.  Evidently many scholars tried to complete the work by splicing in the missing parts; tonight’s performance, however, mostly kept to the original.  Thus we have Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Benedictus qui venit; and some of the sections are incomplete.  A expert in masses may complain, but it worked fine as far as I am concerned, even though the ending seemed a bit abrupt.

The soloists are all on the young side, and a couple of them are products of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  It turns out we had seen several of them at the Metropolitan Opera: Zetland as Xenia in Boris Godunov,  Johnson Cano as Wellunde (a Rhinemaiden) in Das Rheingold and Gotterdammerung, and Appleby as Demetrius in The Enchanted Island.  Hopkins actually didn't have a solo part: he only sang as part of the quartet at the end.   I didn’t remember any of them, probably because they didn’t have the lead roles, and also because I am not familiar with the vocal artists scene.  The balance between soloists, chorus, and orchestra was great; the soprano choir voice sounded a bit strained at times, though.  The only detraction was Johnson Cano tended to move around a lot more than the other soloists, which was slightly disconcerting.  One expects a bit more harmony in stage presence as well, and wonders if the movements are intended to upstage others.  It is especially unfortunate when this is the first thing about the performance that comes to mind.

I came away relatively pleased with the overall program, Anne came away saying she really enjoyed it.  Perhaps I should listen to Mozart more often.  In any case, we were glad Shirley made the trip with us.

The relatively straightforward New York Times Review spent as much ink on the length of the New York Philharmonic season as it did on the performance.

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