Friday, June 20, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. June 19, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra.  (Seat W105, $68.50.)

Program – The Beethoven Piano Concerts, a Philharmonic Festival
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 (ca. 1788-1801) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Songs (2014) by Sean Shepherd (b. 1979).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1796-1803) by Beethoven.

This is the second week of the Philharmonic Festival.  On the menu are two familiar Beethoven concertos (of course one could argue they are all familiar.)

In describing tonight’s program, Gilbert talks about discovering new things in Beethoven’s music.  For me, Beethoven’s music is always enjoyable, although I am still puzzled by the different reactions I get when listening to his work as opposed to contemporary work.

Tonight’s program is a good example.  While I “get” Beethoven, I have never found his music simple – the texture, the dynamics, the virtuosity it requires of its performers.  However, paired with the works by Cheung last week and Shepherd this week, the four piano concertos sounded downright simple.  Complexity comprehension and sense of aesthetics are interesting aspects of the human mind.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me simply say that the “simple” concertos still sounded great with Bronfman at the piano and Gilbert on the podium.  The two interacted seamlessly and effortlessly.  I especially like the dynamic range in the playing, although I would like to hear a louder piano (this may be due to where we were seated.)

I had been remarking how the New York Philharmonic audience had a tendency to applaud after each movement.  Actually they didn’t do it for the first three concertos performed in this Festival.  One could sense an urge to do so, though.  They couldn’t resist after the first movement of No. 3.  I can’t really blame them: it was simply a well-told story.  To me it could well have been Emmanuel Ax – for whom I have the highest regard as an artist – at the piano.

I was initially puzzled by the Playbill’s characterization of the third concerto as the first one that sounds like “fully mature Beethoven.”  After listening to it, I agree.  So even this dense person got to understand something new, after all.

The piece by Shepherd is again commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.  Shepherd got his education at Indiana, Julliard, and Cornell, where he did his doctoral work with Roberto Sierra and Steven Stucky.  As he did with Cheung last week, Gilbert had a short interview with Shepherd while the stage was being set up.  What I got out from it was that this is in some sense a palindromic piece designed to fit in between the two Beethoven concertos.  Gilbert further explained that the tempo starts slow, speeds up, and slows down again at the end.

As with the Cheung piece last week, the composition calls for a complex orchestra, with a huge number of percussion instruments, some quite bizarre (such as cabasa, small egg shaker.)  Both Anne and I agree tonight’s piece sounded a lot more interesting than last week’s.  Even though the idea was for the music to get back to where it started, the journey took us somewhere.

Paraphrasing from the Playbill, the piece is structured rather like a song cycle with interconnected movements, with seven episodes suggesting the terrain through which the piece passes: “The Fair,” “The Chapel,” “The Cradle,” “The Cavern,” “The Nursery,” “The Courtyard,” and “The Meadow.”  I would be lying if I say I got them, that’s even with Gilbert and Shepherd providing some listening tips during their short chat.

I am looking forward to next weeks performance of the Emperor and Triple.

The New York Times reviewer liked the third concerto and the Shepherd piece, but was lukewarm towards the first.  I also found another review (at that panned both concertos, using the word “lackadaisical” to describe the Philharmonic, and complaining that there was no “brio” in the music.  There were a few good words on the Shepherd piece, though.

This summer traffic is getting annoying.  At least by leaving at 4:30 pm, we found off-street parking and time for a relatively leisurely meal at East Szechuan.

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