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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Concert Review: O, Supermen!

Strauss and Rouse at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New York Philharmonic oboist Liang Wang gets a round of applause from his colleagues.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2009 The New York Philharmonic.
It is not common practice for reviewers to attend the last night of a concert weekend by the New York Philharmonic. But Tuesday night's concert, the last of four featuring two major tone poems by Richard Strauss and an Oboe Concerto by current composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse proved an historic occasion. For this was the last time that outgoing concertmaster Glenn Dicterow would play the solo parts in Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra. (It was also this writer's only chance to see this concert following his return from last week's Chicago trip.)

Originally, this program wasn't supposed to be Mr. Dicterow's last Strauss waltz with the orchestra. In fact, this concert program was originally slotted for January 2010, kiboshed by a heavy winter snowstorm immobilized the New York area. With their rehearsal schedule slashed by the inclement weather, the orchestra was forced to change the planned program and delay the New York premiere of the Rouse concerto by a few years.

The concert opened with Don Juan. Strauss' scintillating tone poem that has been a party piece for this orchestra for many decades. Working without a score, Alan Gilbert and company sliced cleanly into Strauss' rich orchestral layer cake, with heroic calls from the brass underpinned by supple strings and glittering percussion.

The mighty roar of the hero's main theme (an idea recycled multiple times in later Strauss works) blew out of the horn section with power and authority, answered by the upward flight of violins. Mr. Dicterow played his brief solo cadenza with warmth and deep feeling. The whole ended with a series of hushed, muted brass chords, a last word of mourning for the legendary libertine.

Liang Wang's nimble oboe playing was at the forefront of Mr. Rouse's concerto. The main theme of this jitters and skips, challenging the soloist against a constantly shifting curtain of percussion and strings. Mr. Wang demonstrated superb breath control in the long phrases of the central slow movement, drawing a singing tone from his instrument and moving the listener with the power of this music. The finale was fleet-footed, demanding both stamina and agility from soloist and conductor alike.

If you don't count this summer's performance of the entire film score of 2001: A Space Odyssey, these concerts marked Alan Gilbert's first performance of Strauss' most famous tone poem since taking over the orchestra. (The film score only features the first movement of the tone poem, which is itself base on the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. The opening was thunderous and powerful, shaking the room despite the substitution of electronics for an actual pipe organ. And the first proper movement of the piece maintained a careful balance between that instrument, strings and wind, the start of a crude and eventually energetic dance under Mr. Gilbert.

It is a surprise to the listener that the Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier and the still later Arabella shows up in the middle pages of Zarathustra. The slippery waltz rhythms dominated the central sections, alternating with the ascending three-note theme from the opening. (There's even a brief, cheeky quote from Till Eulenspiegel, indicating that death, as depicted in that tone poem, is not necessarily the end.)

Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra fought an intricate duel with Mr. Dicterow's solo violin, conducting the side-slipped waltz rhythms with skill and a willingness to take risks. This extended passage yielded (almost invisibly) to the full, savage fury of the large orchestra in the Night Wanderer's Song (complete with tolling offstage bell) the emotional and philosophical climax of this tone poem. Under Mr. Gilbert, the orchestra responded, creating a hushed, reverent atmosphere for the work's final, questioning chords.

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