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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Concert Review: The Old, Old Story

Joshua Gersen steps in at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Tchaikovsky on his deathbed, 1893. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The New York Philharmonic's three-week Tchaikovsky festival Beloved Friend hit an iceberg on Thursday, when a stomach flu felled curator and conductor Semyon Bychkov, whose idiosyncratic interpretations of this well-worn composer have breathed new life into the current season. His replacement was Joshua Gersen, the orchestra's assistant conductor, in his subscription debut.

Assistant conductors do not get much attention in the music press, and are usually there to help with rehearsals, lead educational workshops and field all the difficult stuff that an orchestra's music director may not have time to do. So this represented a huge opportunity for Mr. Gersen, whose last appearance on the Philharmonic's podium was leading a 2016 concert of clips from Disney's Fantasia. Here, he faced two major Tchaikovsky works: a musical Scylla and Charybdis that he had to steer safely past.

The concert was originally planned to open with the overture to the opera Oresteia by the under-served Russian composer and Tchaikovsky pupil Sergei Tanayev. However, Greek tragedy was put on hold for Italian drama: the story of Francesca di Rimini rendered as a tone poem by Tchaikovsky. This is the torrid tale of two adulterous lovers in the Italian Renaissance who were chosen by Dante to represent that particular sin in the Inferno.  Tchaikovsky was no Wagnerian but it is one of his most leitmotiv and chromatic scores, and rises to Tristan-like passion.

Mr. Gersen set about telling the tale of Paolo and Francesca with bold orchestral colors, particularly a theme in the brass that served as a kind of idée fixe.. The music veered between the bedchamber and the battlefield, with the orchestra supplying their temporary boss with richly colored woodwinds and a thick tapestry of strings. Timpani, gran casa and cymbals provided exclamation points. Highlights included the huge battle sequence at the center of the tone poem to the whirling strings that indicate Paolo and Francesca's fiery fate.

The absence of Mr. Bychkov was felt more acutely in the second half of the program. Since the premiere of the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, (nicknamed the Pathetique when the composer died nine days later) the work has been seen as Tchaikovsky's "suicide note", although the circumstances under which he drank the glass of untreated, cholera-infested water that killed him remain murky. It is regularly subjected to bleak, dramatic interpretations with the same set of histrionic clichés that attempt to inject a Mahler-like profundity into its pages and undermine its overall effect.

Mr. Bychkov's refreshing approach (heard in a recent recording with the Czech Philharmonic detailed elsewhere on this blog) was to strip out all that mythology and just play the work as written: the product of a composer who may have been struggling with thoughts of death but may not have been suicidal after all. It is bold and refreshing, and well worth the attention of the enthusiastic collector.

Without Mr. Bychkov, this was a Pathetique played by the numbers, with the orchestra and Mr. Gersen giving a competent but unremarkable reading of the score. Yes, the big sweeping cello theme in the first movement still had its emotional impact, as did the heroic playing of the brass in the third movement. The finale followed the familiar precedent: anguished cries in the woodwinds, dour strings and that final, horrible silence. But given the circumstances of Thursday night's concert, who are we to complain?

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