Saturday, June 15, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Lionel Bringuier, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. June 14, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat T105, $72).

L’Apprenti sorcier: Scherzo d’apres une ballade de Goethe (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Scherzo after a ballad of Goethe) (1897) by Dukas (1865-1935).
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Galantai Tankoc (Dances of Galanta) (1933) by Kodaly (1882-1967).
Suite from L’oiseau de feu (The Firebird) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

For a concert that held such promise, this was somewhat of a disappointment.

Let’s start with the first piece.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is always a crowd pleaser.  It is one of the few compositions where association with a specific story line is quite straightforward – thanks of course to the Disney film Fantasia.  While the orchestra sounded precise, it sounded flat.

Perhaps my lack of excitement about the piece could be attributed to my familiarity with it.  Nonetheless, deep inside I was beginning to suspect this was going to be one of those concerts where “everything was done correctly but it still wasn’t that great”. 

I expressed my disappointment at Batiashvili’s performance of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto and was looking for a better experience with the second.  While my prior experience with Kavakos was not all positive, I did expect him to have the technique to pull it off.  Indeed he put in a much more polished and solid performance, but it was by-and-large uninspired.  In the past Kavakos’s playing reminded me of someone practicing an etude, and he was not all that different today.  The brilliant technique couldn’t make up for the emotionally flat performance.

I did learn from the Playbill a few things about the concerto: Prokofiev still lived in Paris when he began writing this piece, although he would return to Russia soon; this concerto was written quite a few years after the first, which was published in 1917; like many other Russian composers, Prokofiev is considered a great orchestrator.

During our trip to Europe last November we drove from Vienna to Budapest (well, the tour operator did) and I don’t remember passing through the town of Galanta, where Kodaly spent seven years as a child.  An examination of a map shows that the town is quite far away from the road connecting the two capitals. The piece performed today certainly sounded Hungarian; it would take a very knowledgeable musicologist to tell that it is influenced by folk songs from this specific region.  The Playbill does quote Kodaly as saying he took the principal themes from a book of music “after several Gypsies from Galanta.”  The tempo markings in the Playbill are: Lento; Allegretto moderato; Allegro con moto, con grazioso; Allegro; and Allegro vivace.  This may lead one to believe there are five different dances.  If they are, they are played without breaks, and each of the dances is not quite confined to the corresponding tempo.

The program concluded with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.  It at least to some degree salvaged today’s performance.  Even the Commentator’s writeup provided a lot of new and interesting information, which I either didn’t know or had forgotten.  The original ballet music was written in 1910, and the suite is much simplified a five movements, with relatively simple descriptions: (I) The Firebird and its dance; variations of the Firebird; (II) The Princesses’ Round-Dance (Khorovod); (III) Infernal Dance of King Kahschei; (IV) Lullaby; and (V) Finale.

This is a loud piece of music where things got a bit crazy, especially during the Infernal Dance.  Poor Rebecca Young, she just had to keep putting on and taking off her earplugs.  We are beginning to worry if her hearing is beginning to deteriorate; we wish her well.

For some reason, the Program Notes stresses that each composer is a great orchestrator: “dazzling orchestration” for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; “a master orchestrator” for Prokofiev; “brilliantly orchestrated modernism” for Kodaly; and “a great showpiece of orchestration” for The Firebird.  Which brings me to the conductor, a young fellow born in 1986.  He certainly has gone places already, finishing up a six-year stint with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its resident conductor (that means he started when he was 20!)  He is also the chief conductor of Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, and will be its music director starting in the 2014-2015 season.

Today’s concert started at 2 pm.  Since I had no idea if the return traffic would be bad for a Summer Friday, we took the train.

The New York Times review is very positive.  It does remind me that I have seen a couple of Bringuier’s performances before.

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