Sunday, May 13, 2012

concert review: New York Philharmonic

Fifth of the visiting all-stars.

Alan Gilbert has a reputation as a bland, unexciting conductor. Not as far as I could tell tonight. He led Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, both works I've heard more than often enough (you know, Dvorak wrote a large number of attractive short works - I'm fond of a tone poem called The Wood Dove - why can't we hear one of those for a change instead?), and made them lively. The Carnival Overture sparkled with energy, and the Tchaikovsky built up as it went along. I wasn't too happy with the first movement, though blandness was not the problem. Like his great predecessor, Leonard Bernstein, Gilbert likes to express himself through emotive tempo variations, though his are more momentary and small-scale than Bernstein's blocky structural ones. Rather than bringing out the movement's form, however, they just made it seem wayward and meandering.

More than any of the other visiting orchestras we've heard so far, the NYP sounds different from the SF Symphony. Constantly I would hear colors and balances that were strikingly unlike anything the home band would do. Not better or worse, just different. This may have had something to do with the orchestra having a seating arrangement that SFS never uses.

In between these ultra-familiar works came a brand new one, the piano concerto no. 2 of Magnus Lindberg, which the NYP premiered at home two weeks ago. The best compliment I can pay this work is that it didn't constantly make me wonder what it was doing in between Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. If it didn't win rapturous affection, and if it sounded almost as meandering as Tchaikovsky's first movement, it did have a strong tonal center and plenty of superb orchestration. The piano, played by Yefim Bronfman, never flailed away and always made its impact felt, with a lot of rumbling stuff that wasn't obnoxiously showy. The orchestra was equally well balanced, with intriguing tone colors sounding more like Rautavaara, or even Sallinen, than I'd expect, and towards the middle came some impressive brass and wind chorales. It must be a complex score, as except during the cadenza Gilbert beat the complex rhythms unceasingly, even when the piano had the floor and the orchestra was playing just a single note or even silent.

By a remarkable coincidence, today was Mother's Day, and Gilbert's mother is, in a quite unusual bit of casting, a violinist in her son's orchestra. But as far as I could tell, he didn't acknowledge her during curtain calls. Or perhaps she was not there, as I didn't see any female violinists who looked old enough to be the conductor's mother.

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