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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.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Concert Review: Music That Goes Over Easy

The New York Philharmonic offers a three course holiday meal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Chick Bal-Á: Detail from Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks by Natasha Turovsky,
inspired by Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. Image © 2005 Natasha Turovsky

This week, the New York Philharmonic offered two decidedly (and welcomely) secular concerts to warm a very frigid holiday week in New York City. Since the orchestra is at present without a music director, this program was entrusted to Bramwell Tovey, a conductor usually engaged for lighter fare.

Mr. Tovey found himself faced with a muscular program to test his mettle. It opened with the ripping overture to Bedřich Smetana's The Bartered Bride. Smetana, in the opening to one of the greatest comic operas of the 19th century, underpins whiz-bang string arpeggios with the raucous energy of Bohemian folk music. However, the tricky pow-pow opening phrases seemed to befuddle conductor and the orchestra, coming across as square and unfocused. The band regained its footing to deliver this sturdy overture in strong fashion, with no further missteps.

Next, the orchestra was joined by pianist Yefim Bronfman for Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2. The first movement of this leaves the entire string section tacet, forcing the soloist to engage in dialogue only with the winds, percussion and brass. Mr. Bronfman's searching soaring, rhythmically robust performance of the solo part dodged, bobbed and weaved against the orchestral accompaniment, a dazzling show.

The slow movement is meditative and lyrical, a slow tap of timpani and mutter in the lower strings providing the anchor for the pianist to take flight. However, the peace of this music was marred by some unwelcome bronchial accompaniment from the house. A faster middle section drowned out the coughing, which stopped by the time the movement returned to the peaceful opening theme.

The third movement was an absolute tour de force for Mr. Bronfman, who spent much of this allegro engaged in deep conversation with the timpani of principal player Markus Rhoten. Indeed at the movement's end, Mr. Rhoten was singled out for a handshake with the pianist: an unusual honor. Mr. Bronfman then offered the audience a small holiday present: a driven but exquisite performance of Debussy's Clair de Lune from the Suite Bergamesque.

The second half of the concert featured Pictures at an Exhibition, in its transformation (by Maurice Ravel) from a modest piano suite to a crowd-pleasing series of tone paintings for large orchestra. This performance of Pictures was unusual in that Mr. Tovey took a very slow, sedate pace for the opening Promenade, a detailed approach that continued into the Gnomus the first work on display in Mussorgsky's little gallery of sound.

A suggestion of impressionism is present in The Old Castle, with its gloomy chords and evocative solo for saxophone. In this, one heard an echo of the Promenade theme, showing both Mussorgsky and Ravel's musical skill and Mr. Tovey's welcome attention to detail in the lower woodwinds. Tuilleries was next, its glittering orchestration utterly without weight thanks to Ravel's gossamer writing for high winds.

From there on out, this was the Philharmonic on parade, playing in the same autopilot mode that is sometimes heard at the Concerts In the Parks. The big-shouldered Bydlo rolled forward despite a bad note in the tuba solo. The orchestra's wind section danced through the Ballet of Chicks in their Shells and the Hut of Baba Yaga was properly noisy and terrifying. However, despite the presence of a deep brass bell (the heaviest instrument in the Philharmonic arsenal) the finale of The Great Gate of Kiev came off as stiff and stilted. The audience however, seemed to love it anyway. They seemed grateful for an all-tonal evening with none of that unsightly experimentation that could mar a grand evening out.

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