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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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Concert Review: Reed It and Weep

Alan Gilbert wraps the Nielsen Project with the Clarinet Concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Reed man: New Philharmonic principal clarinet Anthony McGill and friend.
Photo by David Finlayson.
The Clarinet Concerto ranks among the finest late compositional achievements of Carl Nielsen, the Danish symphonist who remains his country's best known musical export. As such, it was a natural choice to end The Nielsen Project, the ambitious endeavor of New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert to record all of the composer's major works (the six symphonies, the concertos and several overtures) for CD release on the Da Capo label.

This concert program (seen Friday night) was also a coming-out party for Anthony McGill, the orchestra's new clarinet who crossed Lincoln Center Plaza last year, joining the Philharmonic from the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. McGill's stylish playing has long been a hallmark at that opera house, and his presence fills a huge void left by the retirement of the legendary Stanley Drucker in 2009.

The concert opened with Ravel's orchestration of his Valses nobles et sentimentales. Inspired by a similar cycle by Franz Peter Schubert, these are eight short orchestral works that demand versatility and different voices from the ensemble. These pieces are more about virtuoso orchestration than deep musical content, but Mr. Gilbert led a poignant and dark-toned reading. The loveliest moments coming in the slower orchestral passages, with taut rhythmic work from the percussion section keeping each waltz moving along.

Percussion plays a key part in the  Clarinet Concerto. Nielsen weaves a complex dialogue for the solo instrument and the snare drum into four contiguous, quicksilver movements. This is demanding stuff for both instruments, with Mr. McGill doing perpetual battle with Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb against a chamber-sized orchestration. A single short theme forms the musical core of all four movements. The clarinet leads the way  carrying the central idée fixe forward before bursting into sudden and carefully controlled flights of fancy in the first movement, before climaxing in a jaw-dropping cadenza before a silent orchestra.

Mr. Gilbert again proved his mettle as a Nielsen conductor, sounding perfectly at home unrolling the spartan orchestral backdrop. Transitions between each movement were taken as briefly as possible, driving the work forward. As Mr. McGill navigated the elaborate gyrations, his melodic lines rose and took form, sometimes supported by the orchestra, at others by only air. This was bravura stuff, and proof positive of the skill of the Philharmonic's newest principal player.

Performing a suite built from nine movements of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake  is essentially an artifice. (The suite played here is based on a suite created by music publisher Piotr Jurgenson in 1900 and an edition by the Soviet music publisher Muzgis in 1954.) It's an excuse for the orchestra to play this popular work without the need to keep the dancers on an exact beat. Thus unencumbered, Mr. Gilbert  brought a dark, slightly wild energy and brisk forward drive to the famous opening theme of the ballet. The middle sections, with their traditional "ethnic" dances were carefully cherry-picked.

The pas de deux of the ballet featured gorgeous playing from current Acting Concertmaster Sheryl Staples, whose solo violin dived and turned in concordance with the principal harp. However, the last movement, while lush and sweetly played, seemed to slow and lack the last bit of inspiration and drive. Perhaps the Philharmonic's occasional ambitions as a ballet orchestra are better served by more imaginative projects.

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