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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Concert Review: The Burly Show

Alan Gilbert works out the New York Philharmonic.
"And turn! And bend! And flex! And play!" Conductor Alan Gilbert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic.
On Wednesday night, Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in three sturdy modern works. Composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg's Feria was followed by the Second Piano Concerto of Bela Bártok with soloist Lang Lang. Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, a steely-eyed product of his second Soviet period brought the evening to a loud close.

Mr. Lindberg's piece is a sort of orchestral carnival, with many of the musical ideas that have become familiar to New Yorkers over the three years of his residency. A ringing trumpet figure is followed by nervous, chivvying figures in the strings, and complex percussion parts. The orchestra incorporates unusual "found" objects. There is a percussion part for a suspended spring coil, and prominent use of piano. But what made this 17-minute piece work was an eloquent main theme, and a slow central section with subtle references to the Renaissance music of Claudio Monteverdi.

A lengthy pause before the Bartók concerto saw the Philharmonic reconfigured in an unfamiliar way. The entire brass were moved all the way to stage right, with the woodwinds sitting in front along the lip of the stage. The first violins occupied the center of the stage behind the piano. Since Bartók's composition omits strings in the first movement, and mutes the brass in the second. this divided seating seating made musical sense. 

Lang Lang is known for his Liszt, but here he showed no fear in taking on the technically challenging (and at one point in the second movement, unplayable) music of the other famous Hungarian composer. Mr. Lang brought an energetic, driving presence to the piano part, playing the staccato notes from the shoulder and pounding the keys with drill-bit precision. For the elegant glissando runs up the keyboard, his left hand would hover in the air, playing its own, invisible part before crashing down to continue the piece. Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra provided sturdy accompaniment.

Written in 1944, Prokofiev's Fifth is one of his more popular works, heard frequently when there's a large orchestra that has a tuba player with serious lung power. The symphony anticipates the forthcoming Russian victory over the Nazis. It represents a sort of high point in the composer's return to the Soviet Union, a high that would not last as the following Sixth drew the wrath of Stalin's censors.
Mr. Gilbert chose a broadly spaced interpretation. It featured strong playing from the Philharmonic brass, now returned to their customary stage left position. Across a broad sonic bridge built by the strings, the brass players duelled with Prokofiev's pounding percussion, producing a stirring first movement. This is the kind of music this orchestra plays very well, and they charged ahead like a Soviet armored division.

Opening with a bubbly clarinet theme, the Scherzo sprang to vivid life, evoking a Stalinist utopia with just a hint of Russian sarcasm underneath the rhythms. The second slow movement (which shares material with the composer's Cinderella ballet.) Most impressive was the inexorable crescendo, building to a slow, heavy climax that seemed to roll over the listener like a May Day tank.

The finale (opening with the same bassoon theme as the first movement) drove the whole conception home. The most memorable thing about this last movement is a prominent percussion part, led by the echoing "thok, thok, thock" of the wood block. But that's not the conductor's fault. 

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