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Monday, January 13, 2014

Concert Review: In the Brisk Mid-Winter

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lisa Batiashvili nd friend. Photo by Anja Meara © 2013 Deutsche Grammophon.
There are two ways for a modern symphony orchestra to play Beethoven. An orchestra can make his music the main focus, usually featuring at least one of the symphonies and maybe a concerto. The other: juxtaposing Beethoven with other composers, putting his work in context. This week's Philharmonic program (heard Friday night under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert) took the latter approach, alternating Beethoven compositions with works by Shostakovich and Gershwin.

The Philharmonic sounded crisp and bright in the Fidelio Overture, with sweet, dramatic horn calls from principal Philip Myers. Mr. Gilbert conducted an athletic, urgent performance, capturing this opera's sense of a small personal family relationship coupled with dramatic life-and-death urgency. Fidelio is Beethoven's only completed opera, and this performance reminded New Yorkers that it has been absent from New York stages for eight years.

The orchestra was joined by Lisa Batiashvili for the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1. Composed in 1948, this was one of two major Shostakovich compositions to be withdrawn from performance by the composer (the Fourth Symphony is the other) in response to pressure from Soviet state officials. It was eventually heard with violinist David Oistrakh, in 1955 who also played the work's first performance with the New York Philharmonic in December of that year.

The first movement of this concerto (Nocturne) is slow and somber, with Ms. Batiashvili playing a keening, descending theme against the dark colors of the orchestra. The "D-S-C-H" theme (D-E flat-C-B Natural in German notation) appears in the Scherzo, with powerful strokes of the entire orchestra pounding out the rhythmic accompaniment. Ms. Batiashvili played the solo part with energy and drive, leaping fearlessly over the intervals and paving the way for the concerto's second half.

The third movement is a passacaglia, a very old musical form with a steady figured bass against which the violin wanders as if lost in icy wastes. This ends in a long cadenza, a major statement of virtuosity for the soloist. The cadena led the way into the searing Burlesque finale, taken with great speed and clarity despite the demanding nature of this music. The solo part featured laser-like technical playing from Ms. Batiashvili against a blazing orchestral accompaniment led by Mr. Gilbert.

The Beethoven First led off after the intermission in a brisk, business-like reading under Mr. Gilbert's baton. From the stately opening chords to the brisk finale, this familiar work sounded crisp, pressed and folded, with sharp edges and neat corners in Beethoven's quirky minuet and humorous, Haydn-esque final Rondo.

The full forces of the Philharmonic were augmented with extra percussion and five tuned car-horns for George Gershwin's tone poem An American in Paris. Some ensembles pay lip service to Gershwin's musical legacy, but the Philharmonic embraces it, playing the perky opening figures with enthusiasm and energy. Virtuoso parts for the percussion players (including the taxi horns) were answere with full, round tones from the brass, from the blare of trumpets to the deep growl of the tuba. The slow central blues movement, with its elegaic parts for saxophone and trombone led to a welcome return of the brilliantine opening, with the whole thing ending in a blaze of orchestral light.

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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.