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Friday, February 23, 2018

Concert Review: They Dig American Music

The New York Philharmonic explores its musical legacy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The trumpets, trombones and tuba of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic.
There is a perception in the world of classical music that is a fallacy: that the music created by composers born in the United States is somehow inferior or lesser than the works of those composers born on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The New York Philharmonic has a long record of fighting against that ugly prejudice, through the commission and creation of works by Yankee composers. On Thursday night America's oldest orchestra upheld that tradition with the the first of three concerts this week that focused on the brilliance and innovation of orchestral music created in this country the 20th century.

The concert opened with Samual Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Originally created as a slow movement for a string quartet, this version uses only the strings of the orchestra to slowly hypnotize the listener drawing one into it sound world and making its fervent emotional point. The composition entered the national conscience when it was played in morning for the deaths of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It stayed there thanks to its appearance in the 1985 film Platoon.

Conductor Joshua Gersen unearthed a lush, textured sound from the string players. The work unfolded itself slowly, with the mourning dirge taken up by the violas and the cellos. They were joined by the slow weeping of the first and second violins. An elegaic solo by first violist Rebecca Young was answered again by the violins. The movement rose in pitch and minor-key tension, increasing its intensity in an outpouring of unspecified grief. The work took a long Brucknerian rest before letting that tension out slowly in the work's final bars. The playing was clear and beautiful, this orchestra at its very best.

Up next were the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, a piece that the Philharmonic can play in their sleep and is usually reserved for the glitz of Opening Night. Bernstein remains a Philharmonic legend, the young conductor who became music director and one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. (Mr. Gersen made a similar debut on just hours' notice, in 2017.) He would have been proud of his legacy here as the nine dances received a detailed and nuanced performance that was well above the norm. Mr. Gersen slowed the tempo in certain places, allowing details and nuances that are often blurred over in an eagerness to get to the famous crowd-rousing Mambo.

One particular moment comes to mind: the short passage that ends the setting of "Somewhere." Here, Bernstein uses shifting chromatic woodwinds over a sound in the percussion that evokes the deep tolling of church bells. Although not a quote, the passage owes something to the end of the Prelude to Act I of Mussorgsky's opera Khovanschina. Another passage shows the influence of Debussy on Bernstein, as strings and winds create the illusion of dappled morning light on New York City streets. West Side Story stands Janus-like, looking back to the composers that influenced its creation while anticipating the music of the later 20th century.

It's hard to believe that the New York Philharmonic, once the epicenter for the performance and proselytization of the music of Aaron Copland had allowed a decade to lapse before programming and presenting the composer's vital Third Symphony. This work is an American answer to the masterpieces of Mahler and Shostakovich a hugely consequential creation that needs to be heard and performed with greater frequency. It is cast in for movements in the mall area and mode building up to a gigantic finale that expands on a theme first heard in the composer's Fanfare for the Common Man

In the slow introduction of the first movement, the orchestra showed its ease with this knotty, cerebral, but very listenable score. The Scherzo was eight minutes of brilliant fury, shifting into a slow middle section that probed and pushed at its limits before the percussion re-entered in a rage. The woodwinds predominated in the beginning of the slow movement, creating a gossamer texture before the work unfolded itself and built to a large and weighty climax. The finale, opening with repeated quotations from the famous Fanfare featured heavy lifting from the trumpets and the trombones, answered by portentous cannon-shots from combined timpani and gran casa on the other side of the stage. The effect was nothing less than thrilling.

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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.