Friday, June 16, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Anthony McGill, clarinet. June 8, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat EE107, $45.50).

Program.  Alan Gilbert Season Finale: A Concert for Unity
Ibn Arabi Postlude (2007/2014) by Azmeh (b. 1976).
The Latina 6/8 Suite (2014) by Perez (b. 1978)/Traditional.
Symphony No. 7 (1904-05) by Mahler (1860-1911).

Artists.  Musicians from the New York Philharmonic and the Silk Road Ensemble.
Ibn Arabi Postlude.  Yo-Yo Ma; Anthony McGill; Johnny Gandelsman, Alan Gilbert – violin; Cynthia Phelps – viola; Carter Brey – cello; Edward Perez – bass; Shane Shanahan – Percussion.
The Latina 6/8 Suite.  Christina Pato - Galician bagpipes and piano; Johnny Gandelsman, Alan Gilbert – violin; Cynthia Phelps - Viola; Yo-Yo Ma – cello; Edward Perez – bass; Shane Shanahan, Christopher S. Lamb, Daniel Druckman – percussion.

This is it.  Alan Gilbert will end his tenure as NY Phil’s music director after this series of concerts.  If I understand things correctly, the Mahler piece – very substantial at close to 90 minutes – was featured in all the concerts in this program.  Invited to participate in the orchestra were musicians from more than 20 orchestras, the majority of them from overseas. For those who were fortunate to have tickets to tonight’s concert, there were two additional modern pieces by “foreign” composers who now live in New York, and Yo-Yo Ma and players from his Silk Road ensemble would be playing also.  To top it all, Gilbert would be playing the violin (second) in the two modern pieces.  He has on occasion played the violin in concerts, but I never had the chance to see them.

I am writing this review on June 15, a full week after it happened, so have forgotten a lot about the specifics of the pieces.  But I am sure I am right in saying that I will remember this more as an occasion rather than a musical moment – not that the music was not great.

The concert started with a video message from Antonio Guterrez, the Secretary-General of the UN, who mentioned various dignitaries were in the audience.  This was followed by Ma and Gilbert having a “conversation” before the whole thing began.  I must say Ma needed work as a comedian, and I am not sure any of this added much insight to either Gilbert, the event, or the musical performance.

Kinan Azmeh was born in Damascus, Syria, now lives in Brooklyn.  The work was inspired by the thinker and philosopher Ibn Arabi (12/13th century).  The six-minute piece featured prominent parts by the cello (played by Ma) and the clarinet (McGill).  Like the piece that followed, it was quite accessible, not nearly as inscrutable as most other modern pieces I have come across.  And to the extent I know what Arab music sounds like, it sounded like that.

Curtain call at conclusion of Azmeh's piece.  From left: Johnny Gandelsman, Alan Gilbert, Cynthia Phelps, Yo-Yo Ma, Carter Brey, Anthony McGill, Edward Perez, Shane Shanahan.

Born in Weslaco, Texas, a town less than 10 miles north of the Rio Grande, Edward Perez, who now lives in Queens, isn’t foreign at all.  (The guy studied Applied Math at Harvard, to further mix up things.)  He did live in Peru for a couple of years to deepen his immersion in Afro-Latin musical styles.  This Suite was commissioned by Cristina Pato, who envisioned the piece “with movements that would each represent a different style of Afro-Caribbean 6/8 rhythms that had travel from Europe to the Americas.”  Fair enough.  The four movements are (i) Tarantella-Muineira (Traditional Sicilian and Galician; arr. E. Perez); (ii) Tanguillo: The High Seas (Edward Perez); (iii) Joropo-Festejo: Muineira de Chantada (Traditional Galician; arr. E. Perez); and (iv) Fandango: Prueba de Fuego (Edward Perez).  They totaled about twelve minutes of performance.

I of course couldn’t tell what was traditional and what was original, and again didn’t get terribly lost.  One instrument I had never encountered before was the Galician bagpipe.  Other than being predominantly black in color, it didn’t look that different from the Scottish ones that I was a bit more familiar with.  The instrument was lively in the hands (and mouth) of Pato, though.

It should be mentioned that Galicia is in the northwestern part of Spain, where Pato came from.  The piece was “a vehicle for exploring questions of identity,” which was described as a chain: “Galician to Spaniard to European to New Yorker – Latina.”  Sounds sophisticated, but I can think of myself as “Hong Kong to Chinese to Asian to Chinese-American.”  I suppose I can commission a work to explore that chain of identify.

Cynthia Pato joining at the end of the Perez piece.

It occurred to me that if I had seen this group of people on the street playing the same pieces of music – especially using amplifiers like they did tonight – I would probably cross over to the other side.  Not because I am afraid, but because I want to avoid the crowds that would inevitably surround them.

This was the second time I heard the Mahler Symphony live.  The last time was about 10 years ago, performed by NY Phil, conducted by Maazel.  I did get a chance to watch the first two movements on YouTube with the score.

Not quite able to critique the score or the performance, I am left with a few observations.  The most prominent one was this sounded more like Bruckner both in scope, “plot,” and dynamics.  It lacked the usual wanderings I expected of Mahler works, instead the development seemed quite traditional.  And there were so many loud passages that I worried about the musicians’ hearing.

Many writeups characterize this symphony as optimistic; the Playbill describes it as tracing “a path from darkness into light.”  Considering the time it was written, there was no reason for Mahler to feel positive; there was some time overlap between this and the very dark Symphony No. 6, afterall.

We did see quite a few unfamiliar faces in the orchestra.  One familiar face we didn’t expect was that of Yo-Yo Ma’s.  He was in the middle of the cello section; Anne thought he was the page turner.  I wonder how much practice Ma put in for the one performance he will do (I assume he didn’t play in the other concerts.)  While the part may not present any technical challenges for him, he still had to “get with the program” of the way Gilbert interprets it.  Interestingly, I don’t see Gilbert acknowledging him (one can argue either way) at the end.

That's it.  Last time Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic as its music director.  If you know what to look for, you can see Yo-Yo Ma in the cello section.  With guest artists from twenty-some orchestras, this was a huge production.  I counted, for instance, 14 violas.

The New YorkTimes review is more like a final assessment of Gilbert’s tenure.  To quote its last paragraph: “He seemed not like a man holding one of the major – not to say mythical – positions of its kind in the world, but like just another working musician, surrounded by colleagues, playing a gig.”  Kind, or brutal?  Depends on how snobbish you are, I guess.

So this is the end of one era.  The next era won’t begin until the 2018/19 season, as van Zweden will only be conducting a few concerts in the upcoming season – so far I bought tickets to only one concert he will be conducting.

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