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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Concert Review: Uncommon Ground

Sir Antonio Pappano visits the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Antonio Pappano.
Photo © Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
For a generation of classical music lovers your humble scribe included) the juxtaposition of composers Camille Saint-Saëns and Benjamin Britten with the New York Philharmonic brings a smile of nostalgia. These two composers were featured on a classic 196- album conducted by Leonard Bernstein, which used Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals and Britten’s The Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra to teach a generation the intonations of the various instruments that together make up the modern symphony.

This week, conductor Sir Antonio Pappano came to Bernstein old stomping grounds to lead the Philharmonic in a program featuring very different works by Britten and Saint-Saëns, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ most popular and well loved works, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. None of the works programmed on this bill are played with any frequency by the Philharmonic, and Friday afternoons concert found the orchestra stretching itself under his unfamiliar baton, clearly pleased to be playing music that lies just outside its common repertory.

The Tallis Fantasia is the shortest work here and it led off. However, Sir Antonio eschewed the traditional seating format for the work two groups of string players in antiphonal with a separate string quartet in favor of a tiered arrangement that placed a handful of musicians at the rear yard f the stage above the rest of the players. The orchestra’s string players still produced the desired effect, producing a vibrant performance that seemed to breathe easily in them often unfriendly acoustics of David Geffen Hall.

It helps that the fine soloists who lead each section of the more hearts could each have careers as international virtuosos. (I confess it was off to see the inseparable first chair violas Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young not sharing a desk; they sat separated as if by a grade school teacher for passing notes in class.) And yet the effect worked as their violas sang across the empty space. Concertmaster Sheryl Staples picked up the plaintive Tallis  theme , answered by Carter Brey’s cello. The overall effect was transparent and transporting, the sound of a 20th century composer reaching back four hundred years and finding a way to stop time itself.

Next the orchestra was joined by its current artist in residence, Leif Ove Andsnes for the Britten Piano Concerto, a rare large-scale orchestral work from the British composer. This piece, heard here in its final revised form) is not played much. It had been absent from the Philharmonic desks since 1981. Its piano part is tricky without the flashy payoff that makes a soloist happy. Furthermore, the four movements couch the piano in a splendid and florid display of orchestral virtuosity demanding the utmost effort from all involved.

There are four movements but the dangerous one is the first, which asks for trills, singing passages, ostinati and a finger-busting, tightly curled rhythm that is central to the big final fugue from the Young Person’s Guide. The ideas pile on each other, culminating in a. Lengthy cadenza that allowed Mr. Andsnes the chance to really shine before giving way to,a fugue of its own that raced through the orchestra like flood-waters. The three movements that followed had charms and demands of their own, culminating in a strutting March that was either the epitome of British pomp or a smart parody of the same.

Saint-Saëns’ Third, or "Organ" Symphony (actually it’s the last of his five--long story) is the work of a Frenchman but it was commissioned for a concert in London, where the composer was invited to visit. Here, the Philharmonic was supplanted with two pianists and the electric, simulacrum of a pipe organ that must suffice as a replacement for the Aeolian Skinner organ removed in 1976. Although the slow half of the first movement featured the electronic instrument as  played by Kent Tritle, the blast of fortissimo sound that announced the climax of this bombastic Symphony failed to convince. Perhaps, one day when the Philharmonic completes the planned renovation of its Lincoln Center home, an organ donor can be found.

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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.