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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Concert Review: Husbands, Wives and Dictators

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Husband and wife: Lisa Batiashvili (left) and oboist François Leleux.
Photo courtesy the New York Philharmonic.
Wednesday night at the New York Philharmonic was no ordinary concert. This is the last time that New York gets to hear its hometown band until May, as the orchestra is about to embark on a massive European tour. Also, it occurred following the appointment of Frank Huang as the band's new concertmaster, a post that will begin in the Fall. Finally, it marked the U.S. premiere of Thierry Escaich's Concerto for Violin and Oboe, sandwiched between works by Bach and Shostakovich.

The first half of the concert featured husband and wife soloists: the French oboist François Leleux and Lisa Batiashvili, the orchestra's current Artist in Residence. Led by Alan Gilbert (who is continuing to conduct without a baton, a marked style change in 2015) the spouses played Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BWV 1060), a work that is more frequently heard in its version for two harpsichord soloists and strings.

Played on their originally intended instruments, this lithe concerto proved a revelation, with Bach's gift of counterpoint and musical logic contrasting with a sense of playfulness that one does not generally associate with this most sober craftsman. Mr. Leleux and Ms. Batiashvili twined and twinned their melodic lines, leaping their instruments over each other in the opening movement, engaging in soulful discourse in the central Adagio and bouncing to the finish in the fast movement that ends the work.

The musical DNA of Bach is evident in Mr. Escaich's own Concerto for Oboe and Violin, a work that Mr. Gilbert premiered on a visit to Hamburg last December. The work is tonal and in many ways tradtional, recalling the neo-classical movement of the last century that was led by Prokofiev and Stravinsky. The later composer is also nodded to thanks to the vastly expanded orchestra, with xylophone, marimba and vibraphone among the featured instruments.

This enlarged ensemble did not faze the soloists, who continued their intertwining dance of melodies begun in the Bach work. Material from each movement of the earlier Concerto was reworked repeatedly, stretched, compressed, reversed and inverted, with the enlarged orchestra providing florid commentary on the double caccia of Ms. Batiashvili and Mr. Leleux.

The second half of the concert featured the Symphony No. 10 in E minor by Dmitri Shostakovich, a 1953 composition published only after the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Shostakovich was a target for Stalin's cultural apparatchiks in the 1930s and '40s, falling in and out of favor and suppressing many works until the political climate was less dangerous. Nonetheless, he survived. In writing this work Shostakovich also broke the so-called "Curse of the Ninth Symphony," becoming the first major composer following Beethoven to write a Tenth.

This is a frequently programmed work at the Philharmonic, whose muscular strings and burly brass section tear through the terrifying fortissimos and  Under Mr. Gilbert, the performance was hard-driven and yet seemed curiously rote. The first movement's long crescendo and diminuendo felt like dusty history books, impressively played but lacking any sense of imminent terror or fear. That quality emerged in the shrieking scherzo, which Shostakovich (purportedly) wrote as a portrait of Stalin himself. The two massive final movements (dominated by a theme made from the composer's own initials) lacked an emotional payoff.

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