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Friday, October 5, 2012

Concert Review: Ax Breaks New Ground

The Philharmonic's new Artist-in-Residence plays Bach and Schoenberg.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Emanuel Ax. Photo from medici.tv.
Thursday night at the New York Philharmonic marked two milestones for pianist Emanuel Ax. It was the soloist's first concert as the orchestra's newest Artist-in-Residence. It was also the first time that this veteran pianist played the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in front of an audience. Music director Alan Gilbert conducted.

The program opened with Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D minor. Mr. Ax is an adept, fluid artist. But in the opening  of the Allegro his playing gave the feeling that he was also finding his comfort zone in this piece. The performance began to jell with the introduction of a second thematic subject as soloist and conductor began the long game of call-and-response.

The central Adagio was more assured. Mr. Ax sounded more assured in these slow passages, playing the cadenzas with a light, controlled touch that allowed the notes to flow smoothly together. The finale, with its distinctive, descending theme featured tight interplay between Mr. Ax and Mr. Gilbert. Orchestra and piano chased each other through the descending theme, finally ending the chase on a harmonious cadence.

Before the next work, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Ax took up microphones to explain a bit about the composer's music, works which have (in the past) sent the more conservative members of the Philharmonic audience fleeing for the lobby. It proved to be a smart move.

Written by the composer in 1942 during his California exile, the Piano Concerto was created two decades after Schoenberg's decision to use twelve-tone techniques to construct new sounds in music.  The pianist demonstrated the "note row" that is the basis for this complex score. Mr. Gilbert stressed the connection between Schoenberg and the music of Brahms, and gave listeners some guideposts through the twenty-minute concerto.

The results were good: a crystalline collaboration between Mr. Ax and a very large, sometimes overenthusiastic orchestra under the baton of Mr. Gilbert. The opening, a sort of waltz without tonality evoked a musical fall from grace with the wry outlook of the 20th century replacing the elegance that had gone before. There were some dynamic and balance problems in the Scherzo, as the powerful Philharmonic brass occasionally overrode the soloist.

The four movements of this piece form one organic whole, and it was tough to delineate the dividing line between the scherzo and the more aggressive moments of the slow movement that followed. The faux cheer of the final Rondo had a kind of gallows humor in its acceptance of futility. It also featured pointillist, elegant playing from Mr. Ax as Schoenberg's complicated musical ideas resolved themselves in the final repetitions of the original tone row.

The second half of the concert  made a return to conventional repertor with Mozart's popular Linz Symphony. Number 36 in the composer's catalogue, the Linz was dashed off in just four days to fulfill a contractual obligation. All the notes were in place, but this stodgy performance lacked excitement. There was nothing wrong here: the instruments sounded great and Mr. Gilbert emphasized a clarity of texture in the middle movements. But the piece itself paled, sounding and feeling disappointingly plain after the glittering sorcery of the Schoenberg concerto.ppelkonen@gmail.com
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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.