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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Concert Review: Up the Down Banister

The noisy return of the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J, Pelkonen
Pianist Jonathan Biss doing what he does.
Photo from Onyx Records.
The New York Philharmonic are back from their 2017 European tour. Thursday night marked the ensemble’s return to its home stage at David Geffen Hall with a program of heavyweight orchestral works by Berlioz and Elgar, flanking a pair of interconnected piano concertos with soloist Jonathan Biss. At the podium: the young Irish conductor Courtney Lewis, making his subscription debut.


Mr. Lewis began the concert with a set of excerpts from Hector Berlioz epic dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, a sprawling work which attempts to  express the entirety of Shakespeare's play through the composer’s fetish for orchestration. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis’ choice of excerpts picked up the action with the the slow movement “Roméo seul.” This and the “Tristesse” that followed provided an opportunity for the more bronchial members of the Philharmonic audience to express themselves fully. Loud coughs between the measures (seemingly at every rest in the score) spoiled the delicate orchestral effects.

However, orchestra and conductor rebounded, finding their footing with the next two excerpts. This culminated in the "Grande Fête chez Capulet," a celebration of Berliozian bombast, Choirs of dancing winds, a steady, determined brass section and the triple-time thump of two timpani players contributed to the general uproar. Mr, Lewis whipped all this into a crowd-pleasing, energetic dance number, although these excerpts had none of the drama and power of the complete score,

The next piece was far more interesting: the Philharmonic debut of The Blind Banister, composer Timo Andres third concerto for piano and orchestra. This is the first in a series of five works commissioned by the pianist Jonathan Biss. Each new work in the project is based, to some degree on one of the Beethoven concertos, and is designed to be premiered in juxtaposition with the work that inspired it. Mr. Andres’ work provided ample elbow room for Mr. Biss to showcase his abilities, while taking a listener on a journey through an enormous wormhole found in the cadenza of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 in B flat minor.

The work started with Mr. Biss playing a variant on that cadenza, which led into a singing theme for piano, always leading ahead of the orchestra. The second movement “Ringing Weights” is a remarkable scherzo, with the keyboard pealing out carillon-like tones and erupting into a cadenza of its very own, Here, Mr. Biss followed Mr, Andres map to the outer reaches of the piano’s abilities of expression, before turning round and riding the warm air currents of the final movement in a journey back to where this concerto began.

The source of Mr. Andres’ concerto opened the second half. Jonathan Biss has built the early part of his career playing Beethoven. Here, it was possible to appreciate not only the quality of his pianism but the inspiration of The Blind Banister. Mr, Lewis injected rhythmic freshness into the  outer movements, although the “Scotch snap” rhythms of the finale were without finesse. The central slow movement  was better, with Mr. Biss speaking Beethoven's poetic language with great eloquence.

The other half of the orchestra filed back onstage for the finale: the twenty-minute tone poem In the South by Edward Elgar. Inspired by the composer’s Italian tourism, this elephantine, occasionally stodgy work falls somewhere between Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony and Richard Strauss’ Aus Italien. Its trudging rhythms and opening and closing trumpet and trombone fanfares forecast the bombast of Respighi. Only the slow movement provided respite, with a long and eloquent solo passage violist Rebecca Young showing Elgar at his most inspired.

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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.