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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Concert Review: Against the Gathering Darkness

Jeffrey Kahane returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Jeffrey Kahane returned to the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
In the years between the two World Wars, the last, dying gasps of tonal music and the rise in popularity of American jazz created a climate where composers engaged in fearless and sometimes furious experimentation. It was as if they knew disaster was coming, and that it was time to get all their good ideas down on paper before the world plunged back into darkness.

This week, the New York Philharmonic offered a carefully curated program of lesser-known major orchestral works from Maurice Ravel, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin. The program, conducted by Jeffery Kahane (who also served as piano soloist) searched for common ground between these three composers, offering listeners Ravel's flashy post-Impressionist virtuosity, Weill's  post-Mahlerian sturm und drang view of Wiemar Germany, and the jazzy sounds of Gershwin's New York.

Mr. Kahane opened Friday night's concert at the keyboard for Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major, the composer's second exercise in the genre following the one for left hand only that he wrote for Paul Wittgenstein. Here, soloist and orchestra were flawlessly integrated, with the piano diving in and out of the orchestral line in a fearsome display of right-hand technique and carefully constructed orchestration. Ravel tricks the listener repeatedly, shifting the melodic line between the piano, harp, viola and English horn, creating a complex but airy structure that dazzles and delights.

The central movement of this work shifts tempos in the middle, from a broad Adagio to a relaxed, but forward-moving Andante. It opened with a long and thoughtful monologue for the solo piano before finally being joined by the orchestra. As the orchestra finally, almost reluctantly joined the solo piano, the movement transited from its slow beginnings to a steady walk, before dying away. The final movement, with its glittering orchestration for percussion and strings provided Mr. Kahane with fresh opportunities for display, which he met with quick, eager fingers and a singing tone that integrated with the orchestra.

Kurt Weill's Symphony No. 2 dates from 1934, and is the composer's final major orchestral work before shifting his attentions to the Broadway musical. Weill started the work while he still lived in Berlin, but was completed fter he and his wife Lotte Lenya fled to Paris to escape the increasingly oppressive Nazi regime. The work presents a very different view from the Weill who helped birth the German theater of alienation and later conquered Broadway: this is a serious three-movement work which shows the influence and gallows humor of Gustav Mahler. Before leading this work, Mr. Kahane addressed the Philharmonic audience at length, discussing his own distant family connection with Weill (his grandmother was a distant cousin) and relating the story of his family's own flight on the last vessel to carry refugees from the German port of Hamburg.

This work proved stormy and powerful, with the expanded orchestra offering driving, surging rhythms and blea minor-key intimations that recall Mahler's middle period in its sense of dauntless and determined struggle. It is unusual to hear Weill's melodic gifts applied to such a large canvas, driven by muscular percussion and brass roaring out in anguish at the death of freedom in what would soon be Hitler's Germany. The slow movement is the most moving, a bleak, shuffling funeral march down a bleak road of damnation. The third movement takes that grim shuffling rhythm and hastens it into a manic dance, climaxing in a celebration of death (with a touch of Weill's gift for music-hall idiom) that unsettles the listener and demands the utmost precision from conductor and orchestra.

Originally titled the New York Concerto, George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F is a treacherous, complicated work that forces performers and audience to shift gearsfrom the idiom of the concert hall tothe syncopated, easy rhythms of American popular music. Conducting once more from the piano, Mr. Kahane cued the blocks of woodwind and brass and surging rhythms before launching into his own first solo flights from the keyboard.

Gershwin was a master melodist and a novice orchestrator, making up for this deficiency by distributing key solos to the first violin, principal oboe, bass clarinet and even the percussion. The second slow movement featured some beautiful playing from oboist Liang Wang and a sweet, blue mood that entranced the ear. The hard-charging finale has an even more complex piano part, which forced the orchestra to rely sometimes on the steady bows of section leaders, this proved a thrilling performance that integrated the orchestra and keyboard in a fearless exploration of the gray area between big band jazz and traditional orchestral writing.

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