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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Concert Review: The Singer, the Princess and the Orchestra

Magdalena Kožená makes her Philharmonic debut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená made her debut with the Philharmonic last week.
Photo by Harald Hoffmann © 2016 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG.
In his eight years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, music director Alan Gilbert has had a mix of successes and failures. His strengths are with big, symphonic works and opera, with lesser results coming when he veers into the repertory of the baroque and classical periods. As he enters his final year leading the orchestra, Mr. Gilbert has wisely selected a series of concert programs that play to his strengths.

Friday night's concert, featuring the Philharmonic debut of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená was squarely in the Romantic era, pairing the song cycle Les nuits d'été by Hector Berlioz with Rimksy-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a cross between a four-movement symphony and a violin concerto with the spotlight squarely on the conductor and his concertmaster, Frank Huang.

Ms. Kožená's performance of the six songs was warmly received and with good reason. Despite her lower register, her instrument was ideal for the optimism of "Villanelle" and brought a tone of languor and longing that Berlioz called for in "La spectre de la rose." Here, she sang  astonishing low notes when necessary and carried the narrative of the songs up into the higher aether when required. She was committed and passionate throughout, and her performance of the dirge-like Sur les lagunes drew a first round of warm applause from the assembled.

The performance only improved from there, with Absence (the most familiar song here) met with another wave of appreciation from the seats. It was followed by the moody "Au cimetière: Clair de lune", the cycle's emotional climax. Mr. Gilbert picked up the tempo for "L'île inconnue", with its clear hints of an optimistic ending for the hopeful, romantic narrator.

This was the first time this writer has seen Mr. Gilbert use a baton on the podium in over a year. Looking spry and energetic, the conductor provided nimble, supple accompaniment, showing some of his unique style of body movement, something which he had also shelved in recent years. That style is unconventional and unique to this artist, looking a little bit like the katas done in tai chi. But the real style was in the tight, brassy opening of Scheherazade, a grim, descending theme that represents the Sultan who is the Arabian princess' audience for her tales.

Representing Scheherazade herself, Mr. Huang pealed forth virtuosic cadenzas from his first chair, soaring high above the ensemble in flights of instrumental fancy. Rimsky treats the violin much as the human voice of his heroine, and the player must beguile and convince not only the invisible Sultan but the audience at hand. Following the introduction of these key themes, the players launched into the four vivid tales, with Mr. Gilbert bringing energy and drive to The Sea and Sinbad's Ship and an eloquent solo bassoon weaving itself through the following slow movement.

The delicate harmonies of The Young Prince and the Young Princess showed Rimsky's mastery of the huge orchestra to provide brilliant textures and musky "Orientalism" that still bewitches the ear. The finale, with its festive airs and spectacular shipwreck (a return of the fanfare theme, roaring out in the brass) was Philharmonic music making at its best. It was brash, big-shouldered and was met with tumult from its enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

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