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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Concert Review: A Bittersweet Symphony

The New York Philharmonic takes Central Park.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic.
This photo is from 2009 because it does not have the ugly new apartment
towersthat are ruining the Central Park South skyline on W. 57th St.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2009 The New York Philharmonic.
The New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks are a celebrated event on this city's summer calendar, as well as a splendid marketing opportunity for Gotham's oldest orchestra. On Thursday night, New Yorkers filled the Great Lawn of Central Park for the first of two performances scheduled for that verdant venue, with press and friends of the orchestra (including yours truly) set forward on folding chairs near the stage and the masses sprawled on picnic blankets to hear the orchestra through a sophisticated audio system.

Music director Alan Gilbert did something a little different for this program, selecting four tone poems by three different composers: Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, Vyšehrad (the first section of the larger work Má vlast) by Bedřich Smetana and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. With its mix of popular pieces and (one) rarity, this was a welcome break from the usual fare played in the parks.

When heard seperately, these works show different sides of this orchestra. Together, they formed a sort of conceptual mini-symphony. The two Strauss works serve as the opening Allegro and Scherzo. (Yes, I know Till is technically a rondo but it does use dance rhythms, bear with me!) The slow majestic Vyšehrad could conceivably be the slow movement. And the Tchaikovsky, with its famous repeated "romance" theme and funereal ending was a satisfying finale.

The Philharmonic is in the middle of some major personnel transitions, with the most prominent being the departure of long-serving concertmaster Glenn Dicterow a month ago. It was odd to hear Sheryl Staples play "his" parts: the ardent violin solo in Don Juan and the equally prominent solo line in Till Eulenspiegel. However, she played the solos beautifully and this one-two Strauss punch (in honor of that composer's 150th birthday this year) had considerable power.

Despite being filtered through the necessary evil of amplification, the clarity of Mr. Gilbert's Don Juan came through. Little, subtle moments in this score were readily apparent to the ear. The pointillist use of woodwind and strings showed the young Strauss as a master of orchestral detail, while the big sweeping themes came off with grandeur and genuine ardor. Eulenspiegel was even better, a work that this orchestra genuinely loves playing as the E flat clarinet leads a romp through an imaginary medieval cityscape. Only the ending, with its funereal silence and galumphing final chords seemed to confuse some of the less experienced listeners present.

When glancing at the program and seeing that a Smetana piece was scheduled, I immediately assumed it would be Vltava ("The Moldau"), the gently flowing and evergreen second movement of Má vlast that is a perennial favorite with orchestras. So the choice of Vyšehrad, ("The High Castle") was a welcome surprise. From the delicate opening figures of the harps, Smetana takes the listener on an aural tour of the great ruin, with a stately central theme that gathers gradual momentum until opening into a spectacular march. The collapse and destruction of the castle was present in painstaking detail, and the last section (hinting at the Moldau flowing below) left the listener wanting more. Perhaps the decision to program this movement will lead to a full New York Philharmonic Má vlast sometime in the future.

The audience was back on home ground with the Romeo and Juliet overture, at once Tchaikovsky's most user-friendly and most famous piece of lush Romanticism. The cellos and horns were to the fore here, depicting the meeting, union and grim fate of Shakespeare's lovers in a work that could perhaps be interpreted as a metaphor for the composer's own romantic frustrations. Mr. Gilbert produced sweet, muscular tone in the climactic iteration of the love theme, transforming it effortlessly into the couple's funeral march in the final section. This was familiar music expertly played, and the best promotional opportunity that an institution like this could possibly have.

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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.