Saturday, March 22, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Jeffrey Kahane, Conductor and Piano. March 20, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat DD107, $40.)

Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphony No. 2 (1933-34) by Kurt Weill (1900-50).
Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (1925) by Gershwin (1898-1937).

We couldn’t go to the concert we had tickets for this coming Saturday, so we exchanged one ticket for tonight’s concert, and I went by myself.

There are quite a few interesting aspects to the concert program.  First, Kahane is both the soloist and the conductor.  The most recent performance where the soloist also conducted I saw was in Tonhalle a couple of years back, with the conductor playing the recorder.  Of course Orpheus does it without a conductor at all.  The thing about this concert though, is neither of the piano pieces is particularly easy to pull off.  Second, the three works were composed within ten years of one another.  Ravel was French, Weill German, and Gershwin American.  There is some level of cross-pollinatio: Ravel traveled to the US and spent some time with Gershwin before writing his piano concerto, Weill started the symphony in Germany and finished that in France, and Gershwin had visited France recently.  Further, Ravel is a classical composer (word “classical” used very liberally), Weill is known for his work on Broadway, and my exposure to Gershwin has more been in his Broadway and jazz material.  This program perhaps can elucidate the similarities and distinctions among the different genres.  If I were to write a headline for the program, it would be “blurring boundaries between classical, pop, opera, and Broadway.”  From reading the New York Times review, I was reminded that all three pieces were brought into the New York Philharmonic repertoire by Bruno Walter.

If I get the opportunity to listen to the music multiple times, I may be able to conclude something insightful out of the program.  Since I only listened to the program once, I can’t say anything nearly as profound as the possibilities delineated in the previous paragraph.  As a concert, however, my opinion is mixed: there are some very enjoyable moments, there are some that are just so-so.

I have heard the Ravel piano concerto performed several times before (most recently in December, 2013).  Evidently not enough as it all sounded quite new to me.  This was a delightful performance, particularly when it comes to the first and last movements (Allegramente; Presto).  It was a showcase for the pianist’s virtuosity, and has many passages that delight.  Kahane did them well.  I did find the second movement (Adagio assai) a bit on the rigid side (some may call it “solid.”)  To the extent I remember the prior performances, this was a lot better.

It should be no surprise that neither “no conductor” nor “soloist as conductor” catches my fancy.  My problem with the former is simple: I haven’t seen it pulled off except for the simplest of pieces (unfortunately Orpheus is the example.)  The issue with the latter is different.  I think of a concerto as a dialog between the soloist and the orchestra, thus when the soloist also conducts we technically have a monolog.  For most people (myself included) the difference may be minimal, just like someone using dubbing techniques to play multiple tracks in a recording, but you will never go away with the feeling that you just witnessed two great performers working harmoniously together.

Logistically there are issues also.  First the placement of the piano is different.  The audience sees the soloist’s back and thus don’t get to see his fingers flying over the keyboard.  People want to sit on the left side of the hall for a reason.  The soloist stands up every now and then, which is somewhat distracting.  I have no idea how he manages to turn the page (more fascination than a problem.)  I also wonder not being on a podium how folks in the back get to see him over the piano.

Before the start of the Weill piece, Kahane talked a little bit about his connection with the piece and the composer.  Weill was Jewish and eventually left Germany to come to the United States (via France.)  The speech included terms like distant relative, grandmother, emigration to America, Krystallnacht, Nazi’s, and censorship, but I had some problem understanding what Kahane’s connection really is.  Or rather, the connection is so tenuous that it doesn’t justify the number of sentences used to describe it.  What I did get, though, was Weill’s music was banned by the Nazi’s, and Kahane conducted it with the Hamburg Symphony recently.  Also, while the New York Philharmonic first performed this piece soon after its world premiere, it has not done it since until this concert.

Kahane made another remark that really raised my expectations.  It went something like “1933, Third Reich, need I say more?”

Being a baby-boomer kid growing up in Hong Kong, I was more sensitive to the Asian side of the conflict (e.g., how the Chinese fared under Japanese occupation.)  So I may not hear the anguish in Weill’s music, if there is any.  What I heard instead was a “modern” composer with a traditional vocabulary.  It may be unfair to compare Weill with Lowell Liebermann (whose work we heard played by the NJSO, also in December), but I get a similar feeling after listening to this.

Sure, this work feels more substantial, in part because it employs a full orchestra, and in part due to its length (about 28 minutes per Playbill.)  It sounded very tonal, with so many nice solos and duets thrown in that I am tempted to call it a “Concerto for Orchestra.”  Overall, however, the word “pedestrian” comes to mind, even considering the exciting passages that show up time to time.  The Program Annotator calls the music somber and acerbic.  I agree with “somber” but probably have a different understanding of what the word “acerbic” means.  It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to place this music in a film about the horrors of the period. The three movements are: Sostenuto – Allegro molto; Largo; and Allegro vivace. 

The word “jazz” conjures up Duke Wellington, interminably long phrases, soft drumsets, and cigar smoke.  Some must consider it heresy that I don’t get any of that.  I do make an exception when it comes to George Gershwin.  I enjoy his music – classical, jazz, pop, Broadway – very much.

Gershwin wrote this piano concerto when he was 27, a few years before An American in Paris, and soon after Rhapsody in Blue.  Playbill says Gershwin set out to prove to his critics that he could do absolute music, but had to learn orchestration to complete this concerto.  Well, he sure was a fast learner as far as orchestration is concerned, even though he didn’t employ many of the “newer” instruments that are favorites of, say, Strauss. Moreover, the sound is still distinctly jazz and blues.  Overall this is a delightful piece that keeps reminding me of An American in Paris: not sure if it is the blueness or the actual tunes.  There are passages that have no trace of jazz, but the music eventually wanders back to the distinct Gershwin style.  The paraphrase “You can put the classical into Gershwin but you can’t take the jazz out of him” comes to mind.  It was a delightful 30 minutes.  The concerto’s three movements are (i) Allegro; (ii) Adagio: Andante con moto; and (iii) Allegro agitato.

Had my initial objective been simply to listen and to enjoy, it would have been by-an-large fulfilled.   Whatever made me think the overall program would be more than that tempered the enjoyment with questions and unmet expectations.  My own doing? Or were they realistic expectations?  I am sure my remarks about soloist as conductor will still be there regardless.

The roster of the New York Philharmonic shows some turmoil in the bass section: evidently the principal left.  Also, to show they really mean business, now a recording of Whoopi Goldberg tells the audience to silence their phones.  And she felt the need to identify herself.

The New York Times review is concentrated on the Weill piece.  I can understand how listening to something can affect one’s reaction to a subsequent piece (and said as much in my blog about a recent LA Philharmonic program.)  Evidently for this reviewer it doesn’t require time travel to have a later event affect how a prior event was perceived.

I can’t imagine my luck again in finding off-street parking.  Thursday perhaps is a good day to drive into the Lincoln Center area.

1 comment:

Interpreters' Group said...

I agree about the Weill. I can understand why it took so long for another performance in New York. "Pedestrian" is the right word. I also liked the Ravel, but I think his concerto for the left hand is stronger. But for me, the Gershwin is more than a delight. Kahane's decisions, such as the overuse of woodblock in the first movement, were sometimes distracting. But he was so energized in his playing, and so nimble in conducting at the same time, that this was an added pleasure, even though his playing lacked the poignancy I've heard from others.