Friday, June 3 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY
New York Philharmonic
Frank Huang, leader and violin
Grieg, The Last Spring (1881)
Piazzolla, Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1965-1970, arr. L. Desyatnikov)
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (1723)
Before we get started, I just want to say that I’m beyond pleased with the news that Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the next music director of the Met *as well as* remaining music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for at least another decade. Not only does he combine first-rate musicianship with magnetic charisma, on a personal note it is of great comfort to me that one of the constants of my life since the early days of grad school will continue to be a nearby presence for the foreseeable future.
Now, this seasonal concert by the New York Philharmonic is the 32nd concert I’ve attended since starting this blog. 32 in less than a year. That’s a lot, though to be honest, it’s probably less than what I’d managed in previous years. I think the demands of writing this blog have made me more selective in choosing concerts and leaning toward programs and/or performers that I know beforehand I’d feel strongly enough to write about. In many ways this is good, as taking the time to reflect and critique has deepened my understanding and interpretation of many masterpieces. But on the other hand, putting more effort into music and orchestras that I already like means I’m missing out on opportunities to expand my horizon. I hardly go to chamber performances or recitals anymore, and, for that matter, have significantly reduced my attendance of New York Philharmonic concerts in the past six months. It’s a prestigious ensemble and all, but it’s just so…blah, even when it plays crowd favorites with reasonable technical proficiency, as it did tonight with a strings-only (no brass! thank goodness) concert anchored by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (which the Philharmonic tepidly advertised as an “undisputed classical Top 40”).
Don’t get me wrong, the musicians did a fine job, particularly concertmaster Frank Huang, who double dutied as solo violinist and orchestra leader and thoroughly displayed his mastery of both roles. The three season-themed pieces of music performed this evening are each distinctively beautiful and together form an ingenious program, but still I left the concert speechless, as in I have nothing substantive to speak of. It probably doesn’t help that, as a ticket became available only in the last minute, I had never listened to the Grieg piece or the Piazzolla before. As Milan Kundera said, what can life be worth, if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? Or something to that extent. Bottom line is that music, particularly instrumental classical music, is not typically accessible on the first pass. Nevertheless, first impressions of The Last Spring: elegiac and haunting, fresh yet wistful. As the title suggests, the piece is based on a text recounting the story of a dying man observing his last spring, and the poignant contrast between the new beginning that the season nominally promises and the imminent end that the dying man faces tugs at the (heart)strings. I see it as a companion piece to “To the Spring” from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, which has always struck me as a bright, wondrous first spring of sorts.
I’m not typically a fan of Alan Gilbert’s penchant for non-traditional music, though in this case I am glad that he snuck an Argentine take on the four seasons into a program showcasing the more traditional Vivaldi one. Like with the Grieg, I will have to listen to Four Seasons of Buenos Aires again, but it seems to be a sultry tango that pays homage to Vivaldi by incorporating his chords and formal patterns while remaining thoroughly committed to the piece’s Argentinian soul. What I particularly like is that the composition never takes itself too seriously, as it’s full of witty touches–particularly at the transition of seasons–that elicited several rounds of laughter from the audience. Of course, even in winter Buenos Aires is a fun place with pleasant weather, so Mr. Piazzolla was fortunate that he was not composing Four Seasons of Cleveland or something (not least because beyond winter, construction, and sports heartbreaks, Cleveland doesn’t even have a fourth season, but I digress). Mr. Desyatnikov deserves much praise as well for his arrangement of the piece–originally composed for violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón–for solo violin and string orchestra, as I can’t even imagine that it could have worked in any other form.
Finally, the main event, Vivalid’s glorious Four Seasons (more of a top 20 than top 40, I’d reckon), was a flop. Not because of the musicians–as I clarified at the onset, they did well, particularly the solo violinist and the first cellist–but because of the audience, whose applause every few minutes mutilated the piece into disjoint bits. Yes, I’m aware that technically The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concerti each with three movements of its own, but shouldn’t it be all about different registers of strings, through their contrasting textures, coming together and forming a cohesive portrait of the ebb and flow of, you know, the seasons? Instead any thematic energy generated from one movement was not sustained into the next, and the performance became a taxing exercise in Baroque virtuosity. Kind of wish that the Philharmonic’s own season ended on a stronger note, but oh well, here’s to summer.