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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Concert Review: The Redemption of Gil Shaham

Gil Shaham in the park
The Walton Concerto, with the New York Philharmonic

It is not often that one gets to hear the same soloist play the same concerto in the course of a month, with a different orchestra and conductor. Friday's matinee performance by the New York Philharmonic featured Gil Shaham playing William Walton's lone Violin Concerto, a 20th century composition which blends post-Romanticism and jazz influences to create one of the composer's most enduring works.

Here, Mr. Shaham played with firm, robust tone, soaring where he previously skittered, and racing through the complex solo passages with robust tone and an intimate warmth. The intonation problems and reediness that plagued last month's Philadelphia Orchestra concert had disappeared. The soloist was smoothly accompanied by conductor Ludovic Morlot.

Mr. Morlot is a French conductor on the rise, with a brisk style that brought out clarity and depth throughout the complex textures of the orchestra. These qualities extended to the rest of the program, which explored the deep connection between the Russian compositions of Modest Mussorgsky and the music of Maurice Ravel

The concert opened with the prelude to Mussorgsky's unfinished opera Khovanschinha, a brief, evocative tone poem also known as "Dawn over the Moscow River." Khovanschinha tells the story of the rise of Tsar Peter the Great by showing the effect of Russia's political struggles across all levels of society.

This performance used Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration, and Mr. Morlot brought out the shimmering, impressionistic textures in strings and woodwinds, firmly supported by the Philharmonic horns. If it seemed a little light in weight for such a serious piece, the fault may lie with Rimsky, who made a posthumous effort to "brighten" his friend's often gloomy music.

The second half of the program started with Ravel's Pavane pour un Infante Defunte, played at a brisk pace, as if Mr. Morlot wanted to get the funeral proceedings over quickly. It was followed by that composer's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a work that always brings out the best in this orchestra.

Pictures was originally a piano composition, ad Mr. Morlot's leading of the piece brought out some of the work's original, rugged qualities through Ravel's elaborate orchestration. Fine playing from a number of Philharmonic soloists, including tubist Alan Baer, the trumpets and horns, and of course the woodwinds, made for an invigorating stroll through Mussorgsky's imaginary gallery. The final Great Gate of Kiev was played with power and authority, in a resonant affirmation of Mussorgsky's genius.

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