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Friday, September 23, 2016

Concert Review: Settling Their Differences

The New York Philharmonic opens their 175th season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert is starting his last year as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.
The New York Philharmonic opened its 175th season on Wednesday night with a concert built around Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, better known as the New World Symphony. The concert at David Geffen Hall marked the beginning of the orchestra's final season under the hand of music director Alan Gilbert, whose contract expires in June of next year. The concert was attended by music press, donors and glitterati, with the whole affair broadcast live on Facebook, another Philharmonic first.

The evening opened with a spirited, traditional performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (an opening night tradition) with the audience rising in song, perhaps feeling affirmation as New Yorkers following the attack in Chelsea just this past weekend. This was followed by a few words (paying homage to the orchestra's new sponsorship deals) from orchestra president Matthew Van Besien and a statement from Mr. Gilbert. As he spoke, one could sense the tension onstage, not the tension of excitement but that of a large orchestra in a period of transition and crisis.

This concert started with the Philharmonic's first performance of STOMP, a short piece by New York's own John Corigliano. With witty string and percussion figures, this work did what this composer does best, resting its weight squarely on ideas that have been done before. Those ideas were here arranged in a new and interesting way. The wittiest touch: having the string players stamp the rhythm out in unison, reminding this listener of a large herd of horses doing mathematics.

Next up was the evening's biggest success, an inspired performance of George Gershwin's three-movement Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. This work represents Gershwin at his most sober and musically rigorous, although it is overshadowed in the popular imagination by Rhapsody in Blue. Certain soloists are prone to marring its pages with jazzy phrasing and other unnecessary flourishes.

Here, jazzman Aaron Diehl did none of those things, delivering the music as it was written and letting Gershwin's eloquence speak for itself. The opening movement starts with a Charleston, kicked off with a descending figure in the timpani quickly found its feet, with Mr. Gilbert showing his prowess in 20th century music. The slow movement was bluesy and soulful, with Mr. Diehl's piano offering eloquent commentary as the orchestra sighed and moaned. The finale was all energy, releasing the built up tension in an exuberant expression of rhythm and hues.

The New World Symphony is a work that suffers from over-familiarity with the frequent listener, so much so that it has spent much of the last decade in the gulag of works that one does not hear often in the concert hall anymore. Here, Mr. Gilbert and the orchestra spent the opening movement in a veritable battle of wills, with the conductor trying to stretch the tempos of certain phrases and the orchestra battling back with urgency. This resulted in some awkward moments, but ended with maestro and players on the same page.

The Largo that follows is this work's centerpiece, built around the slender tone of the English Horn and an elegiac folk melody that is uniquely American in character. This movement's faster middle section ran into speed bumps when it came to tempo, and a blurry passage marred the big, fugal section that leads to the recap. The last two movements were an improvement, with the Scherzo bustling with raw Bohemian energy, and a Finale that assembled the three preceding movements into a coherent whole that strode on giant legs off to a far and imaginary American horizon. The tensions had been settled at last.

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