Friday, June 13, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. June 12, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra.  (Seat Q114, $68.50.)

Program – The Beethoven Piano Concerts, a Philharmonic Festival
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (ca. 1795/1800) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Lyra (2013) by Anthony Cheung (b. 1982).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Beethoven.

Over the course of three weeks, Gilbert and Bronfman will go through all of Beethoven’s piano concertos.  On each of the first two programs will be a world premiere of a composition commissioned by the Philharmonic.  The third week will feature Glen Dicterow and Carter Brey in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.  We have tickets to all three weeks.

Beethoven’s piano concertos, when played well, are always enjoyable.  Today’s two are no exception.  We have heard Bronfman on multiple occasions before, mostly performing more virtuoso pieces (Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, for instance.)  While the Beethoven concertos surely present their set of challenges, I am sure they are more modest in terms of technical challenges, despite the chromatic runs that take make one hold his breath.  If I remember correctly, Bronfman tends to be quite exaggerated in his movements, often times lifting himself from the bench as he pounded chords out of the keyboard.  Tonight he was considerably more subdued, and instead let the music flow effortlessly from his fingers.

It is interesting to contrast the much more complex fourth concerto with the (close-to) Mozartean first.  (Many think the first (Op. 15) was probably written after the chronologically first piano concerto written by Beethoven.)  The cadenzas, written by Beethoven, require a high level of proficiency.  I don’t remember the one for No. 1 was this long, though.

Sandwiched between the two concertos was the work by Cheung.  The description was certainly quite interesting, with words and phrases like “Orpheus’s lyre,” “Beethoven 4th’s opening chord,” “instruments tuned a quarter-tone below others,” and “tapestry of luxury.”  Whoever managed to use these phrases in an essay has a much better command of the language than I have.  Cheung’s credentials certainly was impressive: Harvard undergraduate, doctorate from Columbia, and now teaching at University of Chicago.  He was one of the four that Henri Dutilleux to whom distributed prize money the latter won.  The piece is dedicated to Dutilleux’s memory.  As the orchestra was setting up, Gilbert had a short dialog with Cheung that further piqued my interest: there is recorded sound (music?) towards the end that starts as puzzling to the listener but ultimately ties everything together.  Cheung indicated that he researched many prior Orpheus music (Monteverdi, Gluck, and Stravinsky.) He also mentioned (nonchalantly, it would appear) that the audience from the day before seemed to enjoy it.

Cheung can either be a Chinese (Cantonese) or Korean surname.  Anne’s remark is no Cantonese can be that good.  (She was kidding, and we are both Cantonese.)  I couldn’t offer any counter-examples with the possible exception of myself (again kidding.)

The Playbill says the music is about 10 minutes long, but Gilbert announced that it was close to 20 minutes.

What do I think of the piece?  It certainly is interesting.  One regret I have was not having read the Playbill ahead of time so I could remind myself what Beethoven’s concerto sounded like.  With Lyra performed before the concerto, I couldn’t tell at all what the reference was.  The music is generally quite complex, oftentimes players in the same section appeared to be playing different notes.  The list of percussion instruments is long, with many instruments I hadn’t seen before: Thai gongs, sizzle cymbal, spring coil, suspended cymbals, low gongs, low log drums, and large metal sheet.  Too bad our seats did not offer a good view of the stage.  However, the music felt like a Brownian motion: lots of activities without noticeably moving forward; a complex case of Philip Glass, if I may.  When it was over, there was polite applause but certainly not quite what Gilbert's remark would lead one to expect.  I told Anne I was glad Cheung is Korean.

I met up with CS during intermission and talked a bit about Lyra.  He asked me if I could write music like that, I said no, but I could probably play it as anything resembling what he wrote would be okay.  (Actually some passages look quite complex, so if I could play it, it would be with a lot of practice.)  And he told me Cheung is of Chinese descent; oh well.  And to have your composition commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic probably is as good as it gets, and something to be greatly admired.

Here is the New York Times review.  The reviewer liked Bronfman’s playing, and had good things to say about the Cheung piece.

Traffic was again bad going into the city, but we got there in time to find off-street parking and to get takeout food from Europan. The concert was a bit long, and when we got to the Thomas Edison Rest Area on the Turnpike, only Burger King was open.

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