Friday, November 22, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. November 21, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat G101, $54.)

Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31 (1943) by Britten (1913-76).
Spring Symphony, Op. 44 (1948-49) by Britten.

Philip Myers, horn; Kate Royal, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, Michael Slattery, tenor; Dominic Armstrong, tenor; New York Choral Artists – Joseph Flummerfelt, director; Brooklyn Youth Chorus – Dianne Berkum-Menaker, director.

Somehow there seem to be more Britten celebrations for his 100th birthday than there are for Verdi’s and Wagner’s 200th.  I purchased these tickets before I went to the (non-subscription) Singapore Symphony concert (where his piano concerto was played) and the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both in October.)  If I had all this planned out in advance, I probably would not have gotten tickets to this concert, thinking I would be “Brittened out” by now.  An awkward way of saying, “but that would be a mistake.”

Also, I wouldn’t have heard Gilbert’s introduction to the program.  I had already gotten an email saying that the original tenor slated for the program, Paul Appleby, withdrew and would be replaced by two different tenors for the two compositions.  So it was “blah blah blah” as Gilbert talked about how they scrambled to look for replacements.  I think everyone’s ears perked up when he said one of them only saw the music for the first time the night before.  If Gilbert was looking for sympathy from the audience, it wasn’t necessary; I certainly wouldn’t have realized that was the case.  I walked away impressed, but more on that later.

The last two Britten performances (piano concerto and opera) were a bit beyond me, even though I enjoyed them.  Tonight’s two pieces restored my faith that I do get Britten’s music, albeit at a possibly superficial level.

The Serenade, written for a solo horn, a solo tenor, and a string orchestra, was particularly easy to understand and appreciate.  It began and concluded with a solo by Philip Myers, the Philharmonic’s principal horn.  The beginning was a bit shaky as Myers seemed to have some problems with hitting and holding the correct pitches.  I also worried if he was going to affirm the reputation (or rather notoriety) of the brass section being too loud.  Things greatly improved as the 25 minute piece progressed, though.

In addition to the solo horn prolog and epilog (the latter being played offstage), the selections in the Seranade are (i) Pastoral – The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton; (ii) Nocturne – Blow, Bugle, Blow by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; (iii) Elegy – The Sick Rose by William Blake; (iv) Dirge – Anonymous; (v) Hymn – Hymn to Diana by Ben Johnson; and (vi) Sonnet – To Sleep by John Keats.  While the Program Notes describes the general narrative as depicting night and the tricks it conjures, I heard it mostly as a reminder of death (the titles of the last three poems make that quite clear.)  Indeed I thought in addition to the bucolic and restful imagery, the work is infused with resignation and sadness.  The words to Dirge actually remind me of the lullaby “Hush little baby don’t say a word.”

I was a bit surprised that I picked a seat in Row G when I ordered the tickets.  Turns out Row G is the second row as the stage was extended to accommodate the large ensembles for the Symphony.  The string orchestra was small enough that we could see beyond the outermost lineup of members.  However, we were very close to the horn and relatively far from the tenor.  The balance was still okay (except for the beginning noted above.)

The Symphony was complex as the Serenade was simple.  In addition to a full orchestra with its accoutrement of exotic percussion instruments, the Symphony also calls for three solo voices, a chorus, and a children’s chorus.

I suspect most people were like me: wondering how the tenor Armstrong would do.  In my case it became a non-issue soon after things got started: it sounded as if the piece was in his standard repertoire.  Now there was this young man (assistant conductor Case Scaglione?) sitting in the first row with the full music score who would give Armstrong cues every now and then, but I suspect that was a backup plan that ended up being only marginally necessary.

This work reminds me a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that the music is probably much more complex than it sounds.  I walked away enjoying the tunes, the interplay of the different parts, and the story (such as it was) conveyed by the words.  I also suspect I will gain new insight into how Britten put it together if I listen to it again.  Britten draws a parallel between his musicianship and that of Mahler’s and how he appreciates Mahler’s sense of form, using this symphony and the Requiem as examples.  I didn’t get that, and certainly won’t mistake this as something written by Mahler, whose music never sounds simple to me.

The Symphony’s mood is set by the poems selected, and by a “particularly lovely Spring day in East Suffolk, the Suffolk of Constable and Gainsborough.”  The 45-minute work is divided into four parts, each part in turn contains several poems.  Part I – Introduction: (i) Shine Out by Anonymous, (ii) The Merry Cuckoo by Edmund Spenser; (iii) Spring by Thomas Nashe; (iv) Whenas the Rye/The Driving Boy by George Peele/John Clare; (v) The Morning Star (On May Morning) by John Milton.  Part II: (i) Welcome Maids of Honour (To Violets) by Robert Herrick; (ii) Waters Above (The Shower) by Henry Vaugh; (iii) Out on the lawn I lie in bed by W. H. Auden.  Part III: (i) When will my May come? by Richard Barnfield; (ii) Fair and Fair (Song of Oenone and Paris) by George Peele; (iii) Sound the Flute! (Spring) by William Blake.  Part IV – Finale: (i) London, to thee I do present by Francis Beaumont/John Fletcher; (ii) Soomer is i-coomen in by Anonymous.  At the conclusion there were some words about “Long live the king” and “Death to treasoners” that weren’t in the Program Notes.  They are still question marks in my mind.

The artists all did well, without the horn hoarding the acoustic space, the balance was quite satisfactory.  With so much squeezed into 45 minutes, there wasn’t a role that was particularly outstanding, though.  The other interesting thing is while Britten’s music generally has a distinct tune (or several going on simultaneously,) it is atonal in that there is no definite key to it.  I was remarking to myself how would I know if the singers are off, singing in the wrong key?  Of course in some places we have traditional harmonies, but in many instances it is more a contrapuntal relationship among the voices.

Much to Anne’s surprise, and somewhat to my own, I really enjoyed this concert.  Attendance was reasonable; however, many of the seats with these “Subscriber Appreciation Letters” pinned on them were not occupied – we did claim our gift of some holiday cards.  I am sure the subsequent performances will get better as the “stand-ins” get more comfortable; I wish them well.

Here is the New York Times review.

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