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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Concert Review: Journey Into Modernity

The New York Philharmonic plays Haydn, Wagner and Rouse.
by Ellen Fishbein
Alan Gilbert. Photo from
The New York Philharmonic is reaching the last stages of its current Gilbert's Playlist mini-festival. On Thursday night, the program was a collision of Joseph Haydn, current composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse and Richard Wagner. The combination, in the words of music director Alan Gilbert, sparked "artistic electricity."

The first half consisted of two works that seemed diametrically opposed. Haydn's Piano Concerto in D met the New York premiere of Mr. Rouse's Symphony No. 3. The performances complemented each other in a surprising way, forcing the listener to take the plunge into the music of the 21st century.

In the first movement of the Haydn concerto, Philharmonic artist-in-residence Emanuel Ax's warm, almost professorial style created the intimacy of a rehearsal in the vast space of Avery Fisher Hall. Reserved merriment and tidy technique from all the performers gave the second movement weightlessness, and Mr. Ax relished the subtlety of his dialogue with the orchestra and between voices within the piano. The lively Rondo followed, and here, Mr. Ax seemed wholly unaware of his audience, playing gently and mouthing the beats during the happiest passages. Through mirth and ephemerality, Mr. Ax gave Haydn’s work a new, distinctly modern quality.

Mr. Rouse’s Symphony No. 3 draws its inspiration from the Second Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. This work is also distinctly modern, but not for its mirth. It began with an uncompromising, almost frantic statement of a bold theme, moving into a set of powerfully contrasting variations. The first and fourth movements were tense, but not timid. The second, scored for harps and strings, evoked the spirit of modern romanticism.

The unapologetic final variation and restatement of the theme resonated with an uncanny majesty as distinguishable motifs and cadences emerged above a pandemonium of aggression. Mr. Rouse's piece was relevant and full of unexpected beauty but produced a polarizing effect. Many audience members applauded well into the intermission, while others left and did not return.

A Ring Journey was arranged by Mr. Gilbert, synthesized from an older orchestral arrangement of Wagner's operatic scores by conductor Erich Leinsdorf. This is an ambitious suite that draws from Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the second, third and fourth operas of the Ring tetralogy.

Under Mr. Gilbert, this suite (which included both the Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried’s Funeral Music) evoked the poetic nature of the myths upon which the Ring is based. A perfect introduction to Wagner’s music, it sampled some of the most tonal and dramatic portions of these massive works. Perhaps because the suite excluded some of Wagner’s more jarring phrases and perhaps because it came after Mr. Rouse’s Symphony No. 3, it sounded strangely florid.

Together, three masters -- Emanuel Ax, Christopher Rouse, and Alan Gilbert -- meditated on what it is like to live in the present. It was an open invitation to celebrate each fleeting moment. Those who accepted the invitation will find themselves enriched.

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