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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Concert Review: A Full Feast of Rare Birds

Gianandrea Noseda leads the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Because photos of conductors get boring, here's a set design for The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh from 1929.
The New York Philharmonic has returned from their mid-November residency at the University of Michigan, just in time to offer their listeners a slate of concerts as the city races toward the holiday season. The first of these programs opened Wednesday night as Gianandrea Noseda led a program of infrequently performed works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saëns and Rachmmaninoff, making a good argument for more programs like this in the future.



Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was the most productive of the five composers known in Russia as "the Five" or the "Mighty Handful." However, with a few exceptions his orchestral works and operas are ignored outside that country. No work has suffered this neglect more than The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronaya his opera written in 1907. Known in opera circles as "the Russian Parsifal" it is a mystery play in which a series of Tatar invasions are thwarted by a Russian saint and a city which mysteriously disappears. (It is rumored to be coming to a New York stage in 2019 in a staging by Dmitri Tcherniakov. It is an educated guess that Mr. Noseda, who led the Met's successful 2014 Prince Igor, will conduct.)

Mr. Noseda offered the Suite from that opera, created by Rimsky's pupil Maximillian Steinberg. In this gorgeous and illustrative music, one heard the fusion of Russian folksong and florid orchestral coloring that was this composer's greatest strength. Simple strophic melodies rose from the woodwinds and cellos, picked up by the orchestra and given muscularity and flex by Mr. Noseda's baton. The second movement was fast and glittering, depicting the bridal procession of the two main characters before the arrival of the Mongol horde. The third movement showed the savagery of the invaders coupled with the opera's miraculous ending, painted in glowing colors.

It is not easy for a new concertmaster to replace a beloved figure but that is just what Frank Huang has done. The performance of Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3 not only thrilled but it showed the serious musicianship at the heart of Mr. Huang's art. Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy himself and his writing is often demanding. Here, he was writing for Pablo de Sarasate, one of the finest violinists of 19th century Europe, and also a prodigious talent in his own right. He had no qualms about creating music that is at the highest level of difficulty.

Mr. Huang wasted no time in unpacking the appeal of this work from the first, announced theme that thrusts the solo instrument firmly to the fore. The opening movement combines engaging themes with impressive acrobatics with fingers and bow. Indeed, the soloist uncapped a wellspring of invention in the opening movement, following the classical rules of the genre while taking advantage of the generous opportunities in the cadenzas. The second movement is a lyric barcarolle that culminated in a knotty climax. It and the gentle introduction to the finale offered respite before Mr. Huang and Mr. Noseda gleefully lit the musical fireworks that brought the work to a slam-bang finish.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the most conservative composers to gain popularity in the 20th century. An expatriate following the Bolshevik Revolution, he found himself having to survive by choosing a career playing music instead of writing it. The Third  Symphony belongs to a late creative spurt, in an era where he had established himself as the last of the breed of old-school pianist-composers. It is not played much, although it does not suffer the neglect that bedevils the composer's Symphony No. 1. This is not an easy work. Cast in three movements that shift tempos and sometimes even genres, this symphony places great demand on conductors and orchestras. As a result, it is not well known.

Mr. Noseda and the Philharmonic players gave a stirring account. The horn section of the Philharmonic is missing longtime leader Philip Myers, but they played here with warmth and sterling tone. The second movement veered from a stately andante to a crazy scherzo and back again without missing a beat. Rachmaninoff's experimentations anticipate the ideas that would get Dmitri Shostakovich in so much trouble with the Russian authorities with the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies. The stately finale, which breaks into a virtuosic, nostalgic fugue on the way to a surprisingly fast Dies Irae figure, was at once optimistic and nihilistic: modern and bold and yet thoroughly traditional in its character.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.