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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Concert Review: Roast Goose with Chestnuts

The New York Philharmonic's holiday feast.
by Paul Pelkonen.
Cooking with a baton: New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic.
On Wednesday night, the plain hardwood walls of Avery Fisher Hall's stage were draped with long skiens of crimson and purple fabric. I asked an usher on the way in, why the adornment?

"Oh, it's the holidays," she said. "And we're glad to have Alan Gilbert back."

This concert marked the first return of the Philharmonic music director to his home podium after a two-month absence, including a tour of Europe. But the program chosen for his return was dull by this conductor's standards, featuring familiar works by Haydn, Schubert and Ravel.

The concert opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 88, a rarely heard piece that stands as a kind of "odd man out" between its more famous brothers written for Paris and London. The work shows Haydn in post-Ezterházy experimentation,  expanding his orchestral palette. Mr. Gilbert took an incisive approach to the four movements, drawing crisp textures from the timpani and percussion and some lyric playing from principal cellist Carter Brey.

The orchestra was then joined by Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter for a set of Schubert songs, heard here in orchestral transcription. The selections were a "greatest hits" from the huge Schubert catalogue. Ms. von Otter's voice may be narrowing, but she still proves an engaging storyteller and a compelling stage presence.
Highlights were the Britten orchestration of Die Forelle ("The Trout") and Max Reger's mournful, searching version of Gretchen am Spinnerade, based on Goethe's Faust. The set ended with the same composer's version of Erlkönig. Although the orchestration lacks the impact of the piano original, Ms. von Otter drew chills when she changed voices and embodied Schubert's supernatural kidnapper.

The second half of the concert opened with the charming ballet suite Ma mère l'oye, Ravel's setting of children's stories commonly accredited to one Mother Goose. This work has its origin in a set of five works for piano four hands, written for the Swiss composer's niece and nephew. Here, it was Mr. Gilbert who made a case for the orchestrated version, drawing shimmering, exotic textures from the Philharmonic players.

In its orchestrated form, Ravel's orchestration allowed the listener to experience instruments that are not always featured. Especially interesting to the ear was the virtuoso part for contrabassoon, (played here by Arlen Fast)  in Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête and the soaring walls of sound built by the horns and trombones. The final orchestral swell of Le Jardin féerique rose to an inspired height, buoyed by trumpets, oboe and clarinet.

The concert climaxed with La Valse, another reliable piece by Ravel. This allowed the percussionists to shine as the orchestra (finally appearing at full strength) swung through the demented triple-time textures and expertly navigated the pitfalls of meter and rhythm written meticulously into the score. Mr. Gilbert turned terpsichorean himself, dancing on the podium as the waltz turned and whirled. He seems more relaxed conducting without a score, anticipating each turn of the music and taking aim with his baton at soloists when the turn came for them to shine.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.