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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Concert Review: Substitutions of Distinction

Michael Tilson-Thomas conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Michael Tilson Thomas. Photograph by Eric Thayer © National Public Radio.
A late change in concert program may not bode well for the success of the evening. But in the case of  Friday night's Carnegie Hall concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra, it proved an advantage. Earlier this week, it was announced that due to the illness of the ensemble's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Michael Tilson Thomas would step in to lead the orchestra in its first New York appearance of the 2013 season. Additionally, the Brahms' Second Piano Concerto would be replaced with the same composer's First. (The change in program was at the request of soloist Hélene Grimaud, who did not want to tackle the massive Second with a conductor with whom she had no opportunity to rehearse.)

The First Piano Concerto is now one of Brahms' most familiar large-scale creations, but it had a troubled genesis. The composer originally conceived the work as a large sonata for two pianos, which accounts for the unusual shape of the large opening movement. The fact that the orchestra is essentially playing what was originally a second piano part puts the players in direct competition with the soloist, accentuated by the long florid opening statement before the pianist finally enters. There were a few awkward phrases in the early passage-work but Ms. Grimaud ultimately made a good case as a Brahms advocate. She found her footing in the long development, and played with surety and firm rhythmic command as the solo piano re-stated the entire opening theme in the movement's recapitulation.

A passionate coda to the opening Maestoso paved the way for a strong central slow movement. Accompanied subtly by the lush tones of the low strings, Ms. Grimaud produced a sweet, singing tone that contrasted sweetly with the orchestral accompaniment. The final movement, with its demanding staccatos and cadenzas was both thrilling and energetic, given muscle and power by Mr. Tilson Thomas. The conductor worked closely with the soloist, making eye contact and demonstrating the collaborative skill necessary to a successful performance of this concerto.

Is there common ground between the sturdy classicism of Brahms and the wild Romanticism of Berlioz? Both composers were willing to experiment when working in a new musical form. The Symphonie-fantastique was revolutionary for its day, a massive Romantic symphony whose five movements (subtitled "Episodes in the life of an artist") chronicled Berlioz' own attempts to woo the Irish actress Harriett Smithson in the boldest of orchestral colors. The symphony came with movement titles and a complete written program, detailing the protagonist's journey from troubled outsider to the addled victim of an opium nightmare.

Working without a score, Mr. Tilson Thomas conducted an authoritative reading of the first movement that brought out the work's bold orchestral colors and still had plenty of rhythmic snap. The Philadelphians responded with that trademark sound, full and sweet cellos supporting noble brass and pin-point ornamentation from the  woodwinds. The following dance movement whirled and capered, light of foot and yet mournful in its self-imposed exile. That feeling of isolation continued in the slow movement, a bleak pastorale framed by the calls of lonely shepherds at its beginning and end.

All that was warmup, though. The second half of the symphony is where Berlioz indulged his dark vision, as the story turns nightmarish. The fourth movement ("March to the Scaffold") is a dour shuffle of low strings and percussion. When the brass came roaring in in triumph at the protagonist's fate, this Fantastique finally caught fire.

The final Dream of a Witch's Sabbath began subtly, wit serpentine string figures slithering into the listener's imagination and setting up for the work's most famous passage: offstage orchestral bells and two tubas sounding a mournful Dies Irae. That funeral knell was seized and carried forward by the rest of the orchestra, erupting in a flood of sound that was raw, passionate and virile. Mr. Tilson Thomas brought the whole bloody bacchanal home in rousing fashion, proving that this product of Berlioz' fevered imagination can still sound fresh even to the most jaded listener.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.