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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Concert Review: A Blizzard of Sound

The New York Philharmonic plays Rouse, Lindberg and the Tchaikovsky Fifth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yefim Bronfman (at piano) and Alan Gilbert (with baton) at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic.
Despite the lashing snow and battering winds that briefly turned Lincoln Center into a winter playground on Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic's subscription concert under the baton of Alan Gilbert (the first of the new year) was solidly attended. The performance, featuring two works by modern composers and a crowd-pleasing symphony followed the current theory of pairing so-called "new" music with a sturdy war-horse that can drive the point home to even the most stubborn listener.

The program opened with two modern works: the ten-minute Rapture by Christopher Rouse and the Second Piano Concerto by Magnus Lindberg. Mr. Rouse and Mr. Lindberg are (respectively) the current and former holders of the coveted position of Philharmonic composer-in-residence. It is a credit to Mr. Gilbert that works commissioned by this orchestra in the last ten years are being brought back into the orchestra's repertory long after their novelty has faded.

Rapture is a conservative example of Mr. Rouse's work, conventional music that is chromatic but essentially tonal. It is a single movement, in which different orchestra members and sections play solo passages that weave together, creating a thick tapestry of sound. Eventually, the whole ensemble speeds up and rolls over the listener with the power of a suddenly crashing ocean wave. (The limpid opening, trumpet solo and surging climax of Rapture recalled the opening of Debussy's La Mer in its elemental power.) Mr. Gilbert led a kinetic, detail oriented performance, exposing the rich treasures of this score with a steady rhythmic thrust that wrapped and absorbed the listener, finding shuddering, jarring power in the work's climactic rush of musical ideas.

The next piece was Mr. Lindberg's concerto with current Philharmonic artist-in-residence Yefim Bronfman reprising the solo part. This work is three movements played in one bloc, a 30-minute marathon that demands fearless technique and a willingness to go beyond the typical limitations of the concert grand. That said, it is more approachable than some of the Finnish composer's earlier works, retaining his love for quirky orchestral ideas but keeping them within a traditional musical form.

Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Gilbert delivered a potent collaboration. The piano part is expansive and loquacious, even orchestral in its rich use of colors and shifting, quicksilver moods. Throughout the work, Mr. Bronfman met the demands of the score with bold technique, racing to both ends of the keyboard, pushing the music forward with a thrust and roll of his shoulders, and bringing eloquent expression to verbose cadenzas that make the listener almost forget the looming presence of the orchestra. The final pages were played with energy and bold strokes of the baton.

With its mournful motto theme and courageous march against an unseen adversary, the Tchaikovsky Fifth ("Tchaik Five") is familiar fare at the Philharmonic. But it also suits Mr. Gilbert's rousing, aggressive podium style with its determined stride. The famous horn solo in the second movement was played by Michael Gast, who is currently spending the season with the Philharmonic since his "home" ensemble, the Minnesota Orchestra remains silent thanks to a lengthy lockout by management. Their loss is New York's considerable gain.

In the Fifth, the traditional symphonic "dance" movement becomes a waltz, here the forum for quick-footed eloquence by the Philharmonic strings. Then, the orchestra charged headlong into the fourth movement and the resolution of the "motto" theme. Mr. Gilbert conducted a brash, aggressive finale, with the brass squarely to the front and center. Trumpets, trombones and horns erupted in a mighty shout, with virtuosic playing from the timpani providing drive to the engine. The finale roared, stopped, breathed, and then slammed out the final sequence of questioning chords, sweeping the audience along in a display of what this orchestra does best.

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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.