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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Concert Review: The Sweltering Sky

The New York Philharmonic plays Central Park.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fireworks over Central Park. From
The annual New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Park series is one of the orchestra's best marketing tools, a chance for New Yorkers to hear the city's oldest orchestra in a very public setting. This year, Alan Gilbert led the band in five such concerts, spreading the gospel of serious music to each of the five boroughs.

On Monday night, the Great Lawn of Central Park was covered with blankets, although this reporter was allowed in the up-close seats and experience the music directly from the stage. This program featured Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey and Tchaikovsky's muscular Fifth Symphony, an audience favorite. The weather was sweltering heat, an oppressive muggy pall that made water bottles and flapping programs a necessary evil for the assembled crowd. Mr. Gilbert conducted in shirt sleeves.

Before the program started, the audience was treated to a surprise. Donor and concert sponsor Oscar Schafer came out on stage to say a few words, and recount how he met his wife Didi on a blind date, at a performance of the Bizet opera Carmen. Mr. Schafer then received the singular honor of guest-conducting the orchestra in the Prelude to Act I of that opera, beating time up to the first cadence and receiving warm applause.

Dvorak wrote his Cello Concerto in the period that he spent living in New York and teaching at the National Conservatory of Music. His house (now demolished) stood on E. 17th St. and teaching music at a New York conservatory. The expansive, almost Brahmsian introduction paved the way for the smooth singing tone of Mr. Brey's cello, which remained in balance with the orchestra thanks to some careful sound engineering in the tricky outdoor acoustic.

Although a hovering helicopter led a Stockhausen-like effect to the central development, this unwanted intrustion only added to the realism of this outdoor performance. Disregarding the aircraft, Mr. Brey met the leaps and arpeggios of his solo part with energy and enthusiasm. Mr. Gilbert made the long legs of this first movement stride forward with purpose.

The slow second movement had a chamber-like texture, with intimate utterances from the cello against a silky fabric of winds and strings. The hard-charging finale was painted in bold strokes, with the best moments coming in the variation where Mr. Brey did battle with Philharmonic concertmaster Sheryl Staples, as the piece (briefly) became a double concerto.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is a Philharmonic war-horse, a romantic, energetic symphony that is beloved by audiences (and sometimes avoided by critics who risk hearing its catchy marches and waltzes as many as three or four times in the course of one season.) Mr. Gilbert led the performance without a score, adding a flavor of risk to his interpretation and generating genuine musical interest from this well-traveled work. His interpretation seems rooted around the unconventional nature of this work, from the long lockstep processions to jaunty brass riffs that energized the audience in the oppressive heat.

In the delicate slow movement. Philip Myers' horn solo was particularly compelling, a song-like utterance that could be an aria in one of this composer's great operas. The waltz followed, in a detailed, finally pointed interpretation that erupted into chorales of brass in its middle section. Finally, the bold finale might be a model for the giddy marches of Shostakovich, bringing out fireworks in the brass before the real ones erupted over the Great Lawn.

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