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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Concert Review: The Exotic and the Forgotten

The New York Philharmonic plays Franck, Prokofiev and Julian Anderson.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis led the New York Philharmonic this week.
Image © 2013 Glyndebourne Opera Festival.
The standard, stolid format of the modern symphony concert (an opening piece, a concerto and a symphony) was established some time in the 19th century. This week's subscription series at the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and featuring Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin followed that format, but drew its works from three very different historic eras.

On Thursday night, Sir Andrew led the orchestra in the first United States performances of The Discovery of Heaven. This work, by the award-winning British composer Julian Anderson is a three-movement poem for orchestra, exploring unusual tone colors and featuring a prominent percussion part. The work bears the stamp of Mr. Anderson's teacher Tristan Murail, whose idea of "spectral music" can be heard in the unusual chord progressions and micro-tones that make up the musical fabric of this piece.

Mr. Anderson's score is peppered with exotic instruments: the whip, the vibraphone and the "lion's roar," a bass-drum sound effect played by pulling a string. However, the difficult textures of the work and dissonant fortissimo chords were difficult to perform and execute, with the players (particularly the brass) showing a lack of enthusiasm for this new piece. Mr. Anderson's absence due to illness may have led to this lackluster performance.

Both players and audience were more enthusiastic about Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, featuring Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin in his first-ever subscription performance with the Philharmonic. Franck's music (and this work in particular) once occupied pride of place among the most popular works of the 19th century late-Romantic repertory, but this was the Philharmonic's first performance of this piece in 30 years. (The last, with the formidanle Alicia de Larrocha at the piano, was also led by Andrew Davis.)

Mr. Hamelin specializes in bringing works that are lesser-known or forgotten before today's audiences. Here. he seemed to take brisk command of the piece, unpacking the simple opening theme and paving the way for the technically proficient but supple playing that followed. The most jaw-dropping moment here was an impressive double trill, as Mr. Hamelin held the work on a knife's edge, his hands mirroring each other and creating a sense of real suspense.

Prokofiev's ballet score for Romeo and Juliet is a favorite of brass players, particularly the tuba whose growled, heavy tread sets the Montagues and Capulets against each other in the work's opening pages. This famous, lurching melody was played by with power and rhythmic drive, blasting the audience in a very Russified version of the famous tragedy.

Far better: the lush portrait of Juliet and a return of variations on the opening theme that characterize the Verona skirmishes that appear throughout Shakespeare's play. There were some impressive moments i the balcony scene where shimmering chords fired the imagination, and the mournful death knell (again a variation on the opening rhythm) of the tomb scene underlined Prokofiev's brilliance as an orchestrator. In the finale, a quick-moving sketch of the death of Juliet's hot-headed brother Tybalt, the work came to vivid life at last.
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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.