Saturday, November 15, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Case Scaglione, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. November 14, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 Left (Seat BB13, $64.50).

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-94) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 82 (1904) by Glazunov (1865-1936).
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100 (1944) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).

Scaglione had been an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic for several years, and this year he got both a promotion (to associate conductor) and a chair.  We saw him sitting in the first row during a concert last year acting as a prompter: the soloist was called in at the last minute and evidently needed some cueing.  I also noticed he was a guest conductor for the Hong Kong Philharmonic recently (I didn’t get to see the concert.)  I was thus somewhat curious how he would do tonight.  That Joshua Bell is on the program was a positive factor too.

Debussy’s prelude, based on a Symbolist poem “The Afternoon of a Faun” by Stephane Mallarme describing how a faun spent a languorous afternoon observing a group of alluring nymphs, was a sensation when it was first performed.  Like my previous encounters with it, tonight’s performance was also pleasant.  However, things unfolded a bit too slowly for my taste, and it was more sterile than the story associated with the poem would suggest.

I knew about “The Mighty Five,” Russian composers who followed Glinka’s nationalistic classical style.  What I didn’t know was that a rival camp of more traditional classicists also existed, often in rivalry with the Mighty Five.  This rival camp would include Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.  Glazunov was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the Mighty Five.  To make things more complicated, the two camps were based originally in Moscow (Five) and St. Petersburg (traditional).  However, the centers of the two schools were swapped when Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow (in 1866) and Rimsky-Korsakov left for St. Petersburg (in 1871).  All this I got from the Program Notes.

The violin concerto is relatively short at 20 or so minutes, and the three movements (Moderato; Andante sostenuto – Tempo I; Allegro) are played without pause.

Joshua Bell certainly put in an enjoyable performance.  He didn’t have any of the intonation problems that he had in the past, and he handled the considerable technical demands of the music with ease.

This was the first time I heard this piece (a review of my blog confirms this,) and this is not a piece that I can grasp on the first encounter.  So I was left with sitting there enjoying the tunes, and admiring Bell’s techniques.  The last time I heard a Strad on stage was last month in Count Basie Theater, with Gil Shaham the soloist.  That instrument sounded great in the smallish auditorium.  The Strad today wasn’t quite loud enough for the vastly larger Avery Fisher Hall.  It came through most of the time, but every now and then I had to pay close attention to hear the soloist above the orchestra.  The third movement was the best of the three, and provided glimpses of the “Mighty Five” school of Russian nationalism.

Leopold Auer, a name well-known to violin students, was the soloist at the premiere.  About two decades prior he was offered the same task for Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, but he declined citing that it was unplayable.  (He eventually became a champion of the composition.)  I can’t be sure, as I haven’t seen the score, but other than being quite a bit shorter, Glazunov’s work is equally demanding on the musician as Tchaikovsky’s.  Indeed with the many quick harmonics and double-stop passages, one could make a case the Glazunov is more demanding.  Of course by that time Auer also had another twenty years of violin craft under his belt.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is probably a great piece to showcase a conductor’s ability to marshal a large ensemble to generate great music.  It is reasonably accessible to the average concert-goer, familiar enough that he doesn’t have to work very hard to grasp it, yet not so popular that he will have formed an opinion of how the composition should sound.

Indeed I have heard this composition a few times before.  The simple movement markings (Andante; Allegro marcato; Adagio; and Allegro giocoso) do not do justice to the substantial 45-minute work.  To my surprise, I was well acquainted with the first and last movements, but the middle two movements didn’t sound familiar at all.  The Annotator describes the second movement as “so full of hilarity and satire … one of the composer’s most irrepressible scherzos,” and the third as “a study in elegant lyricism, though not without tragic overtones.”  That is all true (except I can’t confirm the remark about irrepressibility,) but to me they sounded the least directed movements of the symphony.

Any orchestra would be happy with how the first and last movements were delivered.  They were exciting, purposeful, showed great dynamic ranges, and sounded exquisite.  Indeed the audience could not help but applaud after the first movement, and the conclusion of the work was met with very enthusiastic response.  No doubt some of the applause was directed at Scaglione as encouragement.

I was a bit puzzled why Debussy would be paired with two works by Russian masters.  During Prokofiev I thought I heard a lot of semblance to the Debussy piece.  I don’t know if this is my trying to tie the  program together, or indeed Prokofiev was influenced a bit by Debussy’s music – Prokofiev spent considerable time in Paris, after all.

The reader may find this review more disjoint than usual.  That is unfortunately how I felt at the conclusion of the program.  Nothing particularly bad about the evening, but no “wow, that was a great concert” either.  Perhaps a bit too much to ask for from such a young conductor?

The New YorkTimes reviewer didn’t think much of the first half of the program, characterizing the Debussy piece as “pretty” rather than “seductive,” but had good words to say about the second half.

Having been out of town for a while, we stopped by Jersey City to visit Reid, and didn’t get into the West Side until about 7 pm, which gave us only time for takeout from Europan (and Anne from a street vendor.)  The concert hall had quite a few empty seats, and the city was quieter than usual – it was an unseasonably cold night, and it would drop below freezing this evening.  There was little traffic when we got out, and we must have broken our trip record at about 45 minutes.

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