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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.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Concert Review: Perennials and Premieres

The New York Philharmonic plays Copeland, Rouse and Ravel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New York Philharmonic first chair flute Robert Langevin.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
In terms of the long marathon that is the New York classical music season, this week;s set of concerts at the New York Philharmonic should have been nothing out of the ordinary. There were two New York premieres on the slate.  Guest conductor Leonard Slatkin was a familiar face. Thursday night's concert, the first of three this week at Avery Fisher Hall, was one of the more interesting programs of this young season, focusing entirely on music of the last century.

The concert started with El salón Mexico, the first "hit" in Aaron Copland's catalogue and a piece tailor-made to the Philharmonic, a band that has always emphasized wind and brass as its strengths. Under Mr. Slatkin, this flavorful series of dances came across as more than a Mexican postcard, with bold, picante trumpets and a thick, squarish orchestral texture that was curiously satisfying.

And yet that was just an appetizer, spicingt he palate for the New York premiere of the 1994 Flute Concerto by current Composer-in-Residence Christopher Rouse. This work, written for Mr. Slatkin's current orchestra in Detroit, is among Mr. Rouse's most inventive and accessible scores, bridging an unlikely five-movement arch with the outer movements inspired by Celtic folksong.

The soloist was Robert Langevin, the Philharmonic's principle flautist. He settled easily into the long, singing phrases over a misty, windswept bed of strings. Played attacca the second movement was an elaborate perpetuum mobile march, giving Mr. Langevin room to play complicated melodic lines over the accelerating orchestra, with Rouse's trademark diversity of percussion (wood slap, sandpaper blocks, et. al) providing color and flashes of heat.

The march yielded to the third movement, a slow elegy that provided the symphony's emotional climax, building blocky structures of brass-heavy chords and finishing with a dissonant tone cluster and clash of percussion. The penultimate scherzo was all giddy energy, whirling itself at ever-increasing speed and daring the soloist to keep up the pace. In the emotional finale, the folksongs of the first movement return, transformed, with the weary solo flute taking up its sad song one last time.

The second half of the concert opened with a short introduction from Mr. Slatkin for Gaspard de la Nuit, the finger-busting piano triptych by Maurice Ravel, presented here in a 1988 orchestration by French composer Marius Constant. Mr. Slatkin pointed out the use of the orchestra to illuminate passages in the first two movements of Gaspard, preparing the listener for what was to follow. And then he revealed that Mr. Constant was best remembered for writing Etrange No. 3, (the theme to The Twilight Zone), treating the audience to a short a capella rendition of that famous two-note figure for guitar.

For the first two movements of Gaspard, Mr. Constant's orchestration aded and expanded to the musical ideas of Ondine and Le gibbet. The latter was particularly effective, with orchestral chimes and low strings creating a picture of sonic desolation. The disappointment came with Scarbo, the difficult finale. With the physical demands transferred from a single soloist to a giant orchestra, the sense of daring and performing without a net disappeared, leaving one with a well played but curiously lifeless performance of the score.

Ravel's Bolero ended the concert. Although Christopher Lamb's adroit drumming and the orchestra's slow increase in volume are always welcome, this performance seemed by the numbers after the workout of Gaspard. Problems of balance emerged in the later repetitions at forte and fortissimo, with the blasting tune in the brass drowning out the entire string section. A better balance in Boléro would have been desirable, but the cheering audience seemed not to notice.

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