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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Concert Review: The California Effect

Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic give fresh legs to familiar music.
Back from California: Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 The New York Philharmonic.
Last week, the New York Philharmonic returned to Avery Fisher Hall from a rare tour of California. It could be the water in the Golden State. It could be the fact that the orchestra just began the last act of a long season. Either way, Tuesday night's concert under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert showed an ensemble that sounded renewed and rejuvenated.

It's not often that a reviewer hears the same orchestra play the same music three weeks apart. The pieces in question: Antonín Dvořák's Carnival Overture and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 were played at the start of the month, book-ending composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg's new piano concerto.

The rekindling of the band's inner fire was apparent from the opening bars of the Carnival Overture. Mr. Gilbert drew potent, muscular rhythms and clear textures from the skilled woodwind soloists of the Philharmonic. The second section, with its folk melodies for woodwinds and cellos was a study in the Philharmonic's rich, satisfying sound. 

The difference between this program and the one reviewed three weeks ago was the presence of Béla Bartók's First Violin Concerto. A work from the composer's early period, this two-movement composition was written after the composer developed a romantic obsession with Stefi Geyer, a Hungarian violinist who was  the work's dedicatee.

Things fell apart for the composer, as Ms. Geyer rejected Bartók's romantic intentions. The concerto was quietly shelved, and remained unperformed until 1958, 13 years after the composer's death. To date, it is rarely programmed, although it is an excellent example of the composer's early style.

At this concert, the solo violin part was played by Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, who clearly relished his turn in the spotlight. Mr. Dicterow demonstrated his skill in the opening movement, drawing emotive, almost vocal effects from his instrument and playing the challenging solo passages with fire and verve. 

The second movement is slower, allowing the soloist ample room to articulate the composer's feeling for Ms. Geyer. Mr. Dicterow drew sighing, longing emotion from his instrument, playing with great passion more lyricism than one usually associates with Bartók's angular style.  Mr. Gilbert, a violinist himself, provided shaded, sensitive accompaniment. 

The concert ended with an exuberant, brassy reprise of the Tchaikovsky Fourth, which also featured in the subscription concerts three weeks ago. Philip Smith led the charge with the work's trumpet motto theme, and Alan Gilbert took it from there, urging the orchestra forward into this emotionally wrought, eternally popular work.

The central movements were the biggest strengths here, with Liang Wang's oboe weaving through the orchestral texture, knitting the Adagio together like a silver needle of sound. The third movement, with its playful, plucked opening moved lightly, leading to the heavier textures of the finale.

A fiery Allegro  rings down the curtain on this symphony. Alan Gilbert built anticipation through the churning orchestral figures, setting up the re-entry of the motto theme. It was blasted out by the trumpets and the horns, triggering a last emotional bottle that ended in triumph. If this is how the orchestra is going to play after a brief tour, maybe they make the West Coast trip more often.
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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.