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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.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Concert Review: Freedom For Free

The New York Philharmonic plays Central Park.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert (left) conducts soloist Anthony McGill (right) and the New York
Philharmonic (foreground) in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.
The New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Park are a proud 51-year tradition. This year though the concert took place under a cloud, and not the wispy bits of cirrus fluff that hovered high over the stage. The cloud: the June 12 massacre in Orlando, Florida.  At the start of this concert, Philharmonic music director  Alan Gilbert stepped forward to announce a program change for the evening. The loping, playful overture to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra ("The Thieving Magpie") had been scrapped in favor of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, in memoriam of the victims. The remainder of the evening: with a Mozart concerto and a Strauss tone poem, would proceed unaltered.

Mr. Gilbert led his forces in a slow and inexorable reading of the Adagio, its descending lines and slow, moaned phrases an appropriate elegy for the dead. This was the conductor at his best, in that 20th century modern period that is the wheelhouse of his repertory, drawing forth empathy, terror and sorrow from his players. Even the scattered applause from inexperienced listeners at the work's great pause could not diminish the power of this performance.

The Barber work was then followed by Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, a work that is in fact the last completed composition by its creator in his desperately short lifetime. Yet, there is nothing of the grave in this playful work, which featured the agile fingers and soulful, even jazzy playing of soloist Anthony McGill. Mr. McGill has become a linch-pin of the orchestra since stepping into the position of first clarinet, and performances like this convince one of the enduring power and popularity of Mozart's music.

The second half of this program was ambitious, featuring Richard Strauss' tone poem Ein Heldenleben, a work that the then 36-year-old composer intended as a sort of musical autobiography. Cast in six contiguous movements and calling for a Brobdinagian orchestra with expanded winds and brass, this is a challenging work for players and audience alike.

And yet, the opening with its swooping horn calls and determined upsurge from the vast string section seemed to catch the audience's imagination. They seemed less sure of "The Hero's Enemies", which alternates between chirping tone-rows in the high woodwinds and a deep, ominous figure in the tuba and double bass and "The Hero's Companion," which briefly turned the evening into an extended solo concert for the violin of concertmaster Frank Huang.

After a very slow reading of this movement, Mr. Gilbert picked up the pace for the massive Battle sequence that makes up the fourth movement. Struggling with his orchestral score against a rising wind (just one of the problems of playing outdoors) he maintained control of his forces as they clashed with each other. Discipline is important in warfare, and the conductor showed his mettle in a section where many other maestros lose the plot.

The penultimate section ("The Hero's Works of Peace") in which Strauss quotes much of his back catalogue stayed focused and was played with the crucial self-effacing humor that prevents this from becoming pompous. The slow finale ("The Hero's Retreat") was beautifully played but tried the patience of the masses. They turned to watch the fireworks, preferring that gaudy display to the real orchestral pyrotechnics that had already gone off.

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