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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Concert Review: Who's for Trifle?

A light program at the Philharmonic with Jeffrey Kahane.
by Paul J. Pelkonen 
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein guested (briefly) with the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo by Harald Hoffmann, © 2018 Decca Classics.
New Yorkers (and I am one by birth) are a hardy bunch. Not even the purported bomb cyclone and sub-freezing windchill could keep them away from this week's concerts at the New York Philharmonic, the first of the new year on the stage of David Geffen HallHowever, given the short length and relative light weight of this program, it may be a matter of some debate if the concert was worth braving the elements.

Friday morning's 11am concert opened with Mr. Kahane playing the solo part and conducting Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 from the keyboard. Mr. Kahane is a fine artist but not the most exciting conductor. He played the solo part with speed and technical accuracy, but not too much in the way of profundity. He was also faced with a serious handicap.

In the woody, notoriously wonky acoustic of David Geffen Hall, this created some real problems. For a performer to conduct from the keyboard, the resonating lid is removed from the Steinway and the piano's keyboard faces the audience. However, minus the lid, the piano does not project its sound as well into the auditorium, and Mr. Kahane found himself in the unusual position of having to battle his own orchestra in several passages.

The second half was more exciting, starting with a too-brief appearance by soloist Alisa Wielerstein, playing the cello part in Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations for Cello and Orchestra. This is one of the Russian composer's most endearing creations, a set of delicate Jack Frost crystals that sometimes laugh and dance, and sometimes emit the characteristic Tchaikovskian sighs and sobs.

Ms. Weilerstein approached the formidable solo part with flourish and flash. One could not help but admire the speed and accuracy of her playing in the dazzling outer movements, although she did not plunge to the lowest emotional depths in the slower variations. Regarding the short length of her performance (she played for maybe 17 minutes) one wonders why a second cello piece was not added to this already short program. She didn't offer an encore, either.

It says something that the heaviest work on this program was by Haydn: the Austrian composer's Symphony No. 98. For this work, the cello stand was taken away and Mr. Kahane was brought a fortepiano, which is the common term for the thinner wood-framed pianos built in the style of the 18th century. The instrument lacks the pedal mechanism  of its younger brothers, and has a much smaller resonator board. As it was also stripped of its lid, it was impossible to hear except as a small, tinny tinkle in the few moments when it was actually played.

Yes, Mr. Kahane stood next to this wooden engine for most of the last piece, leading the orchestra and flipping pages in the score. However, one had the sense that the performance would have gone ahead even if he hadn't conducted: most of the players in the stripped-down Philharmonic had their attention fixates squarely on the bow of concertmaster Frank Huang.

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