Thursday, January 15, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Anthony McGill, clarinet. January 9, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat M5, $52.50).

Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/12) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 57 (1928) by Nielson (1865-1931).
Selections from Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-76) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

When I got around to buying tickets as part of a 50% off sale by New York Philharmonic, there were not that many seats left.  So offering incentives does seem to draw in additional concert-goers.  The seats were a bit too close to the stage to our liking, but for tonight’s performance they worked quite well.

Tonight’s program was a mixture of knowns and lesser-knowns.  It is interesting how different the pieces sound even though the three composers had lives that overlapped each other.  I could make out Ravel’s piece being French, and Tchaikovsky’s being Russian (well, the popularity of Swan Lake also gives it away.)  This is the first I heard of Nielsen, a Danish composer who was a contemporary of Sibelius; I can’t say Nielsen reminds me of Sibelius though.

I didn’t read the Program Notes until I got to Avery Fisher, and have to say the title of Ravel’s piece didn’t ring any bell at first.  As I read the notes describing all the flowers, I remembered that I blogged about this piece and found a picture of tuberose to go with that write-up.  Alas, even though I remembered the occasion, I didn’t remember what the music sounded like.  Looking through my old blog, my complaint was that I couldn’t correlate the music with the description.  This time I fared better, not so much I could tell what flower was being described, but that I found the music to be quite accessible.  It’s been about 10 years since that encounter – which was also the last time the orchestra performed it – I wonder if it is due to my different level of music appreciation, or I was simply in a different listening mode.  If it is the former, then I have made some progress, although some would argue pitifully little.  One thing I am sure, the Program Notes are different.  I certainly don’t recall reading “… stands as a seminal work in Ravel’s oeuvre, a distillation of his harmonic practices and his distinctive expression,” or this statement attributed to Debussy: “this is the most subtle ear that can ever have existed.”  If this had been in that Playbill, I wouldn’t have gotten it; neither did I get it this evening.

The waltzes were played without pause, and the movements are: Modere (moderate); Asses lent (rather slow); Modere (moderate); Asses anime (rather animated); Presque lent (almost slow); Asses vif (rather lively); Moins vif (less lively); and Epilogue: Lent (Slow.)

I am writing this blog six days after the concert, and beyond what I said at the outset I don’t have much recollection of the Nielsen piece.  I do remember a couple of themes that got repeated quite often, and remarking to myself that Shostakovich did much better with his 4-note theme for the cello concerto.  McGill – like Cobb of the bass section – are “transfers” from the Metropolitan Opera.  He certainly handled the piece with ease, although other than rapid notes and long breaths I don’t know what constitutes virtuoso clarinet playing.  The piece is not short at about 24 minutes, and is played as one movement.

Over the last several years or so Gilbert has led this revival of Nielsen’s music by programming his six symphonies and three concertos at New York Philharmonic concerts, as well as embarking on a recording project including tonight’s performance.  This was the first concert I attended with Nielsen on the program, and I can only say from this experience that I won’t actively avoid his work.  I wonder how good the record sales are for these recordings.  All I can say is the Nielsen CDs all get high ratings at Amazon.

In writing about Wagner’s Meistersinger, I was wondering whether it would be scandalous to excerpt a famous composer’s work; tonight’s selections offer up a good example.  Tchaikovsky may have intended to extract an orchestral suite from Swan Lake but he never got around to doing it.  The movements played tonight comprised both the excerpts done by the publishers Jurgenson and Muzgis, with the exception that Danse napolitaine was replaced by Danse russe.  The selections played tonight were: (i) Scene; (ii) Valse (Waltz); (iii) Danse des Cygnes (Dance of the Young Swans); (iv) Pas d’action (White Swan); (v) Czardas – Danse hongroise (Hungarian Dances); (vi) Danse espagnole (Spanish dance); (vii) Danse russe (Russian Dance); (viii) Mazurka; and (ix) Scene et Finale.

It is a bit interesting why Gilbert has chosen to include this relatively simple-minded composition in the program.  Simple-minded but enjoyable, I must add.  We last saw the ballet in June, 2014, which we liked.  However, with a full orchestra on center stage, the music came to its own.  I was a bit puzzled by a couple of issues.  The most famous scene in the entire ballet is the Coda where Odile does an amazing number of turns (fouettes), and that wasn’t in the program.  The reason why Danse russe was programmed instead became clear when it was played: it was a chance for Staples to showcase her skills as a concertmaster.

New York Philharmonic haven’t announced their new concertmaster yet, and I wonder if Staples is in the running at all.  In any case, she had to play quite a few solos at the last concert also.  Do these constitute an audition, or are they letting her shine before ceding the acting chair to the new leader?  Oh the intrigue.

I like how she did, and Danse Russe calls on considerable virtuoso skills.  I have remarked many times before that I thought her intonation was much better than that of Dicterow’s, that view was confirmed tonight.  Two areas for improvement, first of which was the weak sound, which might just be the acoustics of our seats or the instrument.  The other one is more subjective: she left both Anne and me sitting on the edges of our seats.  She didn’t make any mistakes as far as I could tell, but there was not the level of confidence that Dicterow would garner – but then he had been at it for decades.

The New YorkTimes review has a lot of good things to say about Gilbert and his Nielsen project.

I was in Lancaster, PA the prior evening, and drove back to NJ this morning.  Anne was in Jersey City babysitting Reid as he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t go to daycare.  I took the train up to meet up with her and drove into the City together.  Traffic was okay both ways; this was the middle of winter, afterall.

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