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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.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Concert Review: They Keep Calm, and Carry On

The LSO at Lincoln Center, with an unusual accompaniment.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Just do what the sign says: Michael Tilson Thomas.
Photo by Chris Wahlberg for
The London Symphony Orchestra returned to Lincoln Center on Wednesday night, for a lavish concert (complete with gala pre-show dinner on the Promenade of Avery Fisher Hall) featuring a sturdy program of 20th century classics. With principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm, the orchestra's program of Britten, Gershwin and Sibelius was perfectly planned for this donor-heavy crowd, designed to raise funds for Great Performers at Lincoln Center.

A salty performance of the Four Sea Interludes opened the concert, a common concert work drawn from the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes. Mr. Thomas presented these intermezzi formed a sort of "symphony," with the Dawn a slow opening movement and the percussive Sunday Morning featuring ringing bell-tones from the horns. Moonlight was the calm before the final eruption of Storm, a potent passage that showed the LSO playing at a very high level indeed.

The evening's soloist was Yuja Wang, whose piano dexterity and penchant for high fashion make her an attractive and even controversial figure with music aficionadoes. Here, she sat down to play the Gershwin Piano Concerto, a three-movement powerhouse which ranks among the most popular examples of its genre from the 20th century.

Following the Charleston rhythms of the initial theme, the piano introduced the second theme in a dizzying bit of passage-work that combined baroque with barrelhouse. Ms. Wang hunched and mustered her abilities as she tossed off fast, free-sounding passages against the taut accompaniment. The recapitulation had player and conductor working closely together as the orchestra traded blows with the solo part, eventually agreeing to create a whirlwind of notes as the movement raced to its finish.

Ms. Wang stretched out in the second movement, playing with languid ease against Gershwin's limpid nocturnal textures. The fast finale absolutely kicked, with the manic energy of the first movement amped up into a jitterbug, the piano rising to dizzying heights of rhythm and groove as the orchestra provided muscular support. This bravura display was followed by an equally impressive encore: the New York premiere of You Come Here Often?, written for Ms. Wang by Mr. Thomas himself.

The concert ended with Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, an expansive work that marked the full flowering of the Finnish composer's stylistic maturity. As if knowing his own importance in the first movement, the principal oboist was out onstage before the rest of the orchestra. A chugging figure in the strings and a dancing melody in the winds led off the expansive first movement, its short, terse thematic material stopping and starting before flowing in the middle section and returning to a quiet close.

The massive slow movement followed, which starts with a funereal tread and rapidly accelerates. It was in the expansive silences of this movement that it became apparent that the orchestra had an accompanist, steady electronic tone that emerged clearly when the movement reached one of its frequent rests. This persistent tone, too low for a hearing aid and too omnipresent and steady for a cell phone, was like the beeping signal of the television Emergency Broadcast System, and an unwelcome addition to the experience.

After Mr. Thomas took a moment to confer with the concertmaster  conductor and musicians decided to soldier forward. The muscular Scherzo serving to (mostly) drown out the electronic sound although it was still occasionally audible. Eventually, the source of the tone was silenced, and the powerful, emotional fourth movement was given a draining and wrenching performance by the LSO forces. As brass and strings rose to the mighty height of the final bars, conductor and ensemble triumphed. Not just in their performance and interpretation of this symphony, but in remaining calm and carrying on in the face of a challenging technological situation.

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