Review: Schumann and Brahms, New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, April 27 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Carter Brey, cello

Franck Krawczyk, Après (2016)
Schumann, Cello Concerto (1850)
Brahms, Symphony No. 2 (1877)

Restless.  That seems to always be how I am when visiting David Geffen Hall.  Something about the unsettling orange glow of the place, or maybe it’s just the constant dread of the orchestra’s brass.  But alas I hadn’t been to a New York Philharmonic concert in almost half a year and wanted to take advantage of my last week of living near the red line.  I had just forgotten the possibility that, through no particular fault of the musicians, I would leave the concert feeling more anxious than I already was.

The opening piece, a world premier, is one of those Alan Gilbert specialties.  While the last movement–comprised of basically just the piano and the harp–was actually somewhat atmospheric to listen to, the rest of the piece sounded quite literally like nails on chalkboard.  At one point the musicians made music by tapping their instruments on the music stand.  Yes, I get it, the composer wants to make some point about liberating music from its tradition forms or whatever, but you will not convince me that this stuff should be consumed more than very sparingly.  Mr. Gilbert seemed completely at ease though, much more than he ever is with the standard repertoire.

And standard repertoire would dominate the rest of the evening.  On paper, Schumann’s Cello Concerto should be one of the instrument’s iconic showpieces.  Schumann writes the prettiest music.  I bet that’s what it says on his tombstone: “Here lies Robert Schumann.  He wrote the prettiest music.”  Set in the same key of A minor as his passionate piano concerto, one expects that such pedigree on a cello would be a soulful masterpiece.  In many ways it is, but the piece never quite rises above just being pretty notes strung together.  Any conflict present seemed superficial and simply there to fill in empty spaces between the prettiness.  Similarly, Mr. Brey, the orchestra’s principal cellist, gave a virtuosic yet uninspired performance.  In fact he played too much as a member of the orchestra and not enough as a soloist, competently but not assertively.  The end result was a half hour of lyrical notes and play whose sum was less than its parts.  To be fair, after Mahler and Shostakovich, all other music would probably sound superficial.

Going into the evening, I was pretty nervous about Brahms’s Second.  Considering how prominently the trombones feature in the symphony and how the New York Philharmonic has by far the weakest trombones of any major orchestra–seriously, I think my high school’s marching band had better trombone players–I waited for jarring mistakes from them as anxiously as I usually wait for the aforementioned nails-on-chalkboard kind of dissonance in new music.  As a pleasant surprise, the trombones and the brass in general made no disruptive mistakes.  The strings were curiously harsh toward the end, but I blame Mr. Gilbert for that more than anything else.  Overall the performance was fine: appropriately folksy at times, foreboding at others, even quite rousing at the end.  Yes, compared to the BSO performance of the same piece last year, the grand finale did not feel earned, but a less telegraphed conclusion would have been wasted on me anyway on this night.  It went better than expected.  What else can one want from life?


Review: Maurizio Pollini with the New York Philharmonic

Friday, October 16 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Berlioz, Le corsaire Overture (1844)
Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1880)
Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)

Even for New York City, this week is quite special in its classical music offerings.  On the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall, tonight a piano legend returns to the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 20 years with the concerto that launched his career: Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin’s 1st, a can’t-miss event for which I broke my concert budget and was so excited about all week.

So imagine my panic when the 1 train I was on stopped for nearly 10 minutes between 34th and 42nd, threatening to make me late.  I tried to relax by reminding myself that it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I missed the opening Berlioz overture.  Chopin’s legacy–partially French as it is–aside, the French canon doesn’t do much for me.  The notes are nice individually, but the whole usually feels less than the sum of the parts; I can’t quite pinpoint why.  Le corsaire Overture, the inspiration of which was either James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover or Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire (either way, a writer of the Anglosphere, how un-French), is an especially poor match for the New York Philharmonic due to the piece’s brass highlights and the orchestra’s one-note, loud-for-loud’s-sake, brass section.

But, that’s OK, I’m certain nobody bought a ticket to the concert just to hear the orchestra play Berlioz.  Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, while quite possibly the most over the top Romantic piece I have ever heard, ingeniously retells the story of the star-crossed lovers in less than 20 minutes, something that takes Prokofiev two and a half hours and with ballet dancers.  In Tchaikovsky’s version, the piece starts with the dignified but foreboding friar’s theme, which gives away gradually to the agitated warring between the Capulets and the Montagues.  The action slows with the love theme, played separately by the English horn (Romeo) and the flute (Juliet).  After more battles, the love theme returns, this time loudly and with the English horn and flute intertwined, signaling that the lovers have consummated their marriage.  Consummation of love is of course punishable by death, which is promptly marked with two cymbal crashes.  A final battle ensues, followed by a sweet homage by the woodwinds to their fallen comrades.  I can’t say that the Philharmonic added anything to either my interpretation or enjoyment of the piece, but it was a solid performance.

After the intermission we arrive at the main event: Pollini playing Chopin.  Chopin’s 1st piano concerto is expressive, nuanced, equal parts strength and vulnerability, joy and melancholy, and far far beyond the composer’s 20 years at the time of its premier.  It’s also an exception among my favorite piano concertos in that it is the only piece in which I can discern no structure, by which I mean that for as many times as I’ve listened to the piece (weekly if not daily), if you played me an excerpt, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which movement it is from.  All of the themes seem to blend together into something so blissfully that it shuts down my analytic functions completely.  My favorite recording is the one by Krystian Zimerman with the Polish Festival Orchestra, which explores every nuance of the music and enhances whichever sensitive mood I might be in, furthering a tendency of indulging in sadness as a means to perceive beauty.

Maurizio Pollini is one of the most lauded Chopin interpreters of all time, and he had played this concerto on his way to winning the 1960 Chopin Competition.  Most world-famous musicians, as technically fluid as they must be, also–by and for design of their fame–cultivate a somewhat flashy brand in personality or demeanor.  Pollini is the complete opposite.  His upper body exhibits minimal movement, and his playing is crisp and unembellished.  In the age of Lang Lang and Khatia Buniatishvili, this is refreshing.  On the other hand, I really feel that Chopin’s 1st is a piece that allows for some indulgence, and Pollini’s detached style, combined with a few missed notes, did not do it full justice.  (The sacrilege!)  Compared to the Zimmerman version, Pollini’s performance, though probably temporally perfect, lacked warmth and emotion, and the piano floated above the orchestra instead of within it.  This hardly mattered to the audience though.  After the pianist played his last note, the orchestra still had a few seconds left, but the audience was already clapping.  A standing ovation for maestro lasted a full five minutes, and the New York crowd only reluctantly dispersed when it was clear that he was not going to give an encore.  After all, one can always nitpick, but Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin is still darn close to as good as music gets.

Review: Strauss and Salonen, New York Philharmonic

Saturday, September 26 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Frank Huang, concertmaster

Esa-Pekka Salonen, LA Variations (1996)
R. Strauss, Ein Heldenleben (1898)

The classical music off-season in NYC is short (merely one month between the end of Mostly Mozart and the beginning of the New York Philharmonic’s season), but when one is spoiled by great performances of world-class orchestras and artists nearly year-round, September feels like a long hiatus.  Despite not being incredibly interested in the programming of the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening concerts, I couldn’t pass up on celebrating the beginning of the season in person.

With the two featured pieces combining for just over an hour of playing time, Alan Gilbert tried to fill up some time by giving a mini-lecture on the Salonen piece before conducting it.  To me, the whole atonal contemporary music thing is like category theory: both claim to advance their respective fields by creating an abstract universe that extends/generalizes the canon, and both completely incomprehensible to me in both techniques and aesthetics.  LA Variations is tolerable and probably more Sibelius than Schoenberg, but I was constantly on edge waiting for the other shoe (or synthesizer) to drop.

Richard Strauss, on the other hand, is like algebraic topology: I don’t know much about either, nor do I really want to, but both occupy central positions in their respective fields that are perfectly valid.  If I question the inclusion of Ein Heldenleben in the program, it’s because I question the inclusion of any piece that underscores the Philharmonic’s one-note, bombastic brass section.  The violin solos were indeed played to technical and artistic perfection by the new concertmaster Frank Huang, but why not go with, say, Scheherazade, which would show off the new concertmaster, hide the brass so that more concert-goers might actually return, AND give Gilbert some time off in between movements instead of having to waive his arms nonstop for the 45-minute symphonic poem?

But all in all, soon the air will be crisp and music will be plenty.  There is nothing like fall in New York City.