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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, June 18, 2015

Concert Review: Cloudy With a Chance of Bernstein

The New York Philharmonic opens Concerts in the Parks.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert conducts Joshua Bell (right) and the New York Philharmonic
in the opening night of Concerts in the Parks.
When you play classical music outdoors, the elements do not always cooperate.  On Wednesday night, 55,000+ New Yorkers gathered on the Great Lawn of Central Park to watch Alan Gilbert conduct a program of American classics, the opening shot of the New York Philharmonic's week-long Concerts in the Parks series. What they got was a shortened program, with long weather delays and two pieces omitted entirely from the ambitious program.

The Concerts in the Parks series is one of the orchestra's flagship yearly items. For fifty years, the Philharmonic has played in Central Park, filling the Great Lawn with music, picnickers and folding chairs in its ambassadorial gift to the city it calls home.The orchestra is further away, at the center of a large stage and the amplified performance loses its lower end and presence outside the concert hall. But the payoff in good will is enormous.

Wednesday night's program was intended to be an ambitious one, a survey of seven works by different American composers drawing from multiple eras, disciplines and styles. It opened with Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal, that composer's first work for orchestra. This was a bold, energetic account led by Mr. Gilbert, with the strings and winds chasing each other pell-mell. Mr. Gilbert took pains to underline the Beethoven quotes in the work (including the "fate" theme of the Fifth Symphony and the scherzo rhythms from the Ninth.

Then, the rain started. Not a drizzle, not a downpour but enough rain for the musicians to move their vulnerable instruments back from the lip of the stage and out of harm's way. Mr. Gilbert addressed the crowd twice, sharing his own personal thoughts on his first Concert in the Parks and giving the willing, waiting and good-natured audience meteorological updates. He also mentioned that George Gershwin's Lullaby (scheduled as the second piece was to be omitted.) Finally, the musicians agreed to play and resumed their seats.

They were joined by virtuoso soloist Joshua Bell, who added the voice of his violin to a 2001 arrangement of music from former Philharmonic music director Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story. Bernstein always brings a certain enthusiasm to the Philharmonic players, as his term as music director represented a renaisance for the orchestra in the 1960s. This music had particular resonance for players and audience alike, and the familiar rhythm of the mambo theme (which opened the suite) had members of the crowd shouting "MAM-BO!" on cue.

The Suite favors the violin in the most lyric parts of the score: "Maria", "Tonight", and "Somewhere" with some opportunities for ornamentation and filigree from the soloist. Joshua Bell played around and over the main thematic material, adding trills, double-stops and whirlwind flash to his playing. The whole closed with the return of the "mambo" theme (again with shouts) and bold final chords. Following this, Mr. Bell and Mr. Gilbert gave an encore in the same style, playing "New York, New York" from the Bernstein musical On The Town.

Mr. Gilbert then told the audience that due to time constraints, the scheduled intermission and the planned performance of Aaron Copland's suite Appalachian Spring would be withdrawn. With that major work omitted, that left three short works by Richard Rodgers, (The Carousel Waltz) Leroy Andersen (Fiddle-Faddle) and John Philip Sousa (The Washington Post March) to end the program in a manner reminiscent of the late Arthur Fiedler. At least the fireworks went off on time.

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