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Friday, February 5, 2016

Concert Review: When Bambi Met Godzilla

Mozart and Respighi at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The amazing fingers of Yuja Wang.
Photo by Felix Broede © 2015 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics.
Programming a modern symphony orchestra concert requires balance, between the aesthetics of classicism and Romanticism, between modernity and the crowd-pleasing tonal music that is an ensemble's bread and butter. However, this week's New York Philharmonic program looked to be wildly out of balance, pitting a Mozart piano concerto (No. 9, the Jeunehomme) against Ottorino Respighi's giant Roman Trilogy, three sets of tone poems that, like the legions of ancient Rome, can simply bludgeon an audience into applause.

The pianist for this program (heard Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall) was Yuja Wang, an artist who attracts as much attention for her leg-flaunting concert attire as for her skills at the instrument. Working with veteran conductor Charles Dutoit, Ms. Wang applied her abilities to a sober and considered performance of this concerto, considered by musicologists to be among Mozart's most serious experiments in what was then still a young genre of music.

The Jeunehomme is one of the first concertos where Mozart forced himself to work closely with the ensemble to achieve the desired result. Playing Mozart's own cadenzas allowed Ms. Wang to display her taut sense of rhythm and drive will lending sweet voice to the main themes as they sang over the orchestra. Although this is a massive concerto, she obliged her fans with an encore, a showy, fireworks-filled take off on the first movement of Mozart's C Major sonata that reminded one of similar "virtuoso" excursions performed by the late Liberace.

 Mr. Dutoit elected to open the Respighi with Roman Festivals, the last and gaudiest of these works. Offstage trumpets (mounted in the second tier of the auditorium) and a roar of percussion and trombones announced Circenses, the depiction of the Circus Maximus and the slaughter of Christian martyrs by wild beasts. This is terrifying stuff, with minor key roars and bleats coming out of the brass section and a hymn-like tune abruptly silenced by the cacophony of the full ensemble.

The travelogue then moved to Jubilee, reminiscent of the treading pilgrims of Wagner's Tannhäuser but with less subtlety. Mr. Dutoit showed expert command of the gigantic orchestra with its nine percussionists and legions of brass and wind, cuing the horn solo in L'Ottobrata and the solo "drunken" trombone in Epiphany. The barrel-organ like tunes grated after a while. Respighi was no Mahler or Puccini.

After a brief pause, Mr. Dutoit launched the Fountains of Rome, the earliest of these compositions and the one most grounded in the "water music" of Debussy. Here, Respighi puts most of the water burden on the woodwind players, although his depictions of the Triton and the Trevi fountains have plenty of work for divided strings and surging horns. Real virtuosity and orchestral color came with the depiction of the Villa Medici fountain at sunset, with Mr. Dutoit summoning an amber-like glow from the orchestra that matched the evening's altered concert lighting.

The Pines of Rome impressed the most. The depiction of children's games in front of the Villa Borghese giving way to the subterranean contrabassoon tones that announce Respighi's portrait of the catacombs under Rome. Monk-like chanting in the double basses and low winds evoked the solemn religiosity of Verdi's Don Carlo. The gorgeous Nocturne followed, depicting the trees on the Janiculum Hill with solo English Horn and clarinet giving way to an actual recorded nightingale song, an unsubtle effect that comes off awkward at best.

Then it was time for payoff, as the double basses launched the heavy tread of The Pines of the Appian Way. A small legion of brass players occupied their stations in the second-tier seats, equipped with trumpets, trombones and Wagner tubas to announce the onslaught of marching Roman soldiers. The crescendo built in power and force, with Mr. Dutoit occasionally turning on the poem to encourage the brass. In this, he violated a sacred rule of conducting but he made music that, judging from its reception, pleased the assembled audience.

(* Ed note Godzilla and Gojira are both registered trademarks of Toho Film Studios.)

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