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Monday, June 18, 2012

Concert Review: The Interactive Philharmonic

Beethoven, Korngold and Nielsen, with audience participation.
Seen (and heard) last week at the New York Philharmonic.
Image from The Simpsons © Gracie Films/20th Century FOX.
The New York Philharmonic season ends this month, but music director Alan Gilbert had a strong program selected for Friday afternoon. However, the concert, featuring works by Beethoven, Korngold and Nielsen was home to something else, some of the most intrusive, irritating audience behavior witnessed (by this reporter, anyway) this season.

Granted, the concert was not stopped (as happened on January 11th of this year when a phone alarm interrupted Mahler's Ninth Symphony.) However, rude, inconsiderate behavior: a shrieking hearing aid, a repeatedly ringing cell phone, and a loud-mouthed jerk sitting in the seat behind me combined to make the afternoon musicale a stressful experience.

No, this won't quite be a straight review. But I'll do my best.
The concert opened with Beethoven's stirring Corolian Overture, written for an Austrian play based on the same Roman general who lent his name to Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Mr. Gilbert stressed the martial rhythms of the piece, but his Beethoven is of the smooth, mellifluous variety. The emphasis is on the composer's good nature, not the heaven-storming power with which this composer is commonly associated. 

Next on the program was Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1947 Violin Concerto, with soloist Leonidas Kavakos. This concerto was the composer's return to "serious" composition after escaping his native Austria in face of the oncoming Anschluss and settling in Hollywood, where he won two Oscars for Best Original Score. Korngold suffered a critical backlash due to his cinematic success, with one waggish critic (Irving Kolodin, of the New York Sun) stating that the work was "more corn than gold" at its premiere.

That wisecrack damaged the reputation of a fine work and a worthy addition to the 20th century concerto repertory. It requires a conductor capable of controlling a large, cinematic orchestra and a soloist capable of Mozartian grace. Mr. Kavakos met that requirement in the stirring first movement, playing the Hungarian-inspired opening theme with an emotional tone from his instrument. Unfortunately, that was when the hearing aid in the orchestra joined the ensemble, creating an annoying, buzzing whine like a second soloist against the lush orchestral backdrop.

The second movement of the Korngold Concerto has an even more sentimental character, with grace notes from the harp and celesta creating an otherworldly carpet of sound for the violinist to solo over. Halfway through the movement, a trilling bell sounded softly, creating a pretty effect as Mr. Kavakios played the elegaic solo part. Unfamiliar with that sound in this particular concerto, I looked over at the percussion section. No-one was playing. The sound was in fact an audience member's cell phone, merrily trilling away in the same key as the concerto. 

One of Alan Gilbert's more noble ambitions since taking over as music director of the Philharmonic is a project to record all six symphonies by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. This concert, which was being recorded for the project, featured the Sinfonia Espansiva, the composer's Third. A philisophical meditation on opening ones inner self to the world, the symphony features an unusual slow movement with a baritone and mezzo-soprano soloist singing wordless melismas over the orchestral melody. 

It also featured the gentleman sitting in seat W-1 of the orchestra, directly behind me. About three minutes before the soloists stood up to sing, he growled: "COULD YOU SIT STILL!?" right next to my ear. My companion turned to look at this rude fellow, who was clearly unaware that he was being recorded. She later told me that he pointed repeatedly at my back, indicating that he was in the right and that I was the offending party. It's a shame too, because Erin Morley and Joshua Hopkins are fine singers, and I really like that movement.

For the record, I had maybe moved my head, or a finger, or something. And I restrained the impulse to respond in the traditional manner taught to us native Brooklynites in the school-yard. After all, we were at the Philharmonic. However, this gentleman's aggressive action soured the rest of the performance. I seem to remember the brisk energy of the opening, the fine solo performances of the second movement, and the later third and fourth movements bringing the whole work to a triumphant close. To be honest, it's a little bit of a blur.

Some days, this job is harder than others. 

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