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Friday, May 23, 2014

Concert Review: Any Color You Like

Vladimir Jurowski makes his New York Philharmonic debut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Vladimir Jurowski made his New York Philharmonic debut this week.
Photo from Medici.TV
With his long dark hair, spidery limbs and penchant for conducting in priestly vestments, Vladimir Jurowski strikes a dashing figure on the podium. In his New York Philharmonic subscription debut (seen at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night) the Moscow-born conductor also proved that he is a budding master of 20th century post-Romantic repertory. The program featured Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 and a set of excerpts from the 1945 Prokofiev ballet Cinderella.

The concert opened the concerto. Here, the demanding solo part was played by Niocola Benedetti, a 26-year-old Scots violinist who stepped in at the eleventh hour for the scheduled artist Janine Jansen. Working closely with Mr. Jurowski and playing with assertive, yet diaphanous tone, Ms. Benedetti lifted herself over the swirling, chromatic textures and luxuriant, velvety sounds of an enormous and carefully controlled orchestra.

This is an early Szymanowski work, incorporating percussion and piano in its thick orchestration. Although it is cast in one movement, the composer shifts tempos, evoking traditional folk dances in one section before diving into fresh outbursts of more-than-Oriental splendor. Ms. Benedetti's solo part stood as the firm epicenter of this huge movement, her double-stops and singing lines providing a thematic guide for the rest of the orchestra to follow.

As the concerto progressed into its later sections and swelled in volume with the addition of the heavy brass and a wide range of percussion, Ms. Benedetti maintained a razor-sharp center line. Mr. Jurowski built the chromatic tension to its breaking point: when the orchestra stops entirely to allow the soloist to spin forth a long cadenza. This thorough workout for Ms. Benedetti has the added benefit of putting the major ideas of this work to rest before the orchestra returns for a final comment.

While Dmitri Shostakovich was chronicling the Nazi invasion of Russia in his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, Prokofiev (who had returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1932) busied himself with Cinderella, a heavy-handed fairy-tale follow-up to Romeo and Juliet. Listening to the twenty-one excerpts from its three acts (carefully chosen by Mr. Jurowski and presented at the Philharmonic for the first time in their original orchestration) one wonders if this re-telling of the classic rags-to-riches story hides a hidden Shostakovich-like musical message, one intended to go right over the heads of Soviet censors.

In any case, Mr. Jurowski led the full force of the Philharmonic in an impressive rendition of this colorful score, which ranges from delicate filigree to raucous humor (with a violin solo for concert-master Sheryl Staples that quotes the failed opera The Love for Three Oranges. In the Act II excerpts, highlights included the slow love music for the Prince and his intended, and a grand, very Viennese waltz. This was followed thunderous account of the clock striking midnight (complete with tick-tocking castanets and large metal orchestral bells.)

The last part of this enormous score (the excerpts totaled one hour) featured the Prince's Galop, a hard-charging account of the young man's frantic search with glass slipper in hand. This eventually yielded to an enormous, thundering fanfare from the heavy brass (contrabass tuba and trombone at the fore.) As the lovers were united against a gorgeous red carpet of strings and woodwinds, the last, ironic comment came from the contrabassoon. This may be a fairy tale, but there are deep currents beneath its surface happiness.
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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.