Review: Nikolai Lugansky Plays Brahms’s First, Take Two

Saturday, March 4 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York NY

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano 

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858)
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 (1937)

Here comes another March, which means I’m another year older.  It must have been a deal that I made with the Devil in a previous life: a ruthless iteration of age, in exchange for a. baseball’s return every March and b. Nikolai Lugansky’s North American tour each spring.  Last year, if you remember–though why would you–I rode the bus all the way to DC to hear him play Brahms with the NSO.  Had I known that he would be performing the same concerto a mere 12 months later in my own backyard, I would have…still gone to DC, of course.  I would travel to the end of the earth, or at least the continental United States, uh make that the East Coast, to hear him play anything.

I have listened to Brahms’s First many, many times, and every time I’m mesmerized by the way it can be meditative one moment and rhapsodic the next.  Unlike, say, Mozart’s piano concertos, which all sound the same to me (except for the Adagio of the 23rd), there is so much variety within just the first movement, it’s as if the composer were trying to summarize the entire German music history in the span of a concerto.  Listening to Brahms live is a somewhat paradoxical experience.  On the one hand, not only have I never seen an orchestra play completely in sync with the pianist and with each other, I can’t even imagine it happening, as there are just too many moving parts.  On the other hand, despite the inevitable messiness, listening to the piece live stimulates the senses in a way that a perfect recording simply can’t.  In particular, it really emphasizes the composition as a dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, and as often is the case in real life, the most productive dialogues tend to feature elements of tension and conflict, which is reflected in both the score itself and the musicians’ performance.

As for Mr. Lugansky, each time that I’ve seen him live, he’s moved a little bit to the left on the Maurizio Pollini to Lang Lang scale of musicianship.  I can discern cracks now in his urbane aloofness that reveal a more intimate and passionate style.  Of course, one cannot play Brahms the same way one plays Rachmaninoff (if one can play either at all), and I’m curious to see how his Rachmaninoff is these days, but just last year I had remarked that Brahms “requires perhaps more explicit emoting on the pianist’s part”, and indeed tonight he was outwardly emotional beyond the immense energy that already emanates from his breathtaking virtuosity.  Compared to last year’s concert with the NSO, Mr. Lugansky definitely seemed more at ease with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, though their collective interpretation of the music was a little different from what I’m used to.  Motifs rolled legato style into one another instead of breaking assertively in between; to what purpose, I’m not sure.  As dependably crisp as the pianist was, overall there was a lethargic hull over the performance, as if the entire orchestra came with a soft pedal.  To be fair, perhaps it was actually I who was lethargic–20 degree weather and too much SQL at the end of a long and angsty week can be disorientating.

On any other night, Shostakovich’s Fifth would be the headliner of the concert, and even on this night, it technically was.  But just as I was in no mood to review Beethoven’s Pastoral after Mr. Lugansky’s Brahms last year, I am too worn out to give the symphony its proper due.  Someday though, there will be a long essay exploring the enigmatic score and its political and personal context, and any performance thereof will be scrutinized accordingly.  For now I will just note that of all the composers that I regularly listen to, Shostakovich is possibly the one whose music I re-interpret most frequently.  Tonight I heard the Fifth as a dark parody of the traditional Romantic symphony, but Mr. Temirkanov presented this view while conducting, I think, apolitically.  The conflict between the upper and lower strings in the opening movement sets the tone, and the second movement, formally a waltz-like scherzo, is covering up for something sinister.  The shattering finale, however, played out as more triumphant than chilling, and some may see that as a political statement in and of itself.  Ultimately, it was a fine, layered performance with (seemingly?) contradictory messages, which at least on a meta level is worthy of the composer.


Review: Beethoven’s Triple, Minnesota Orchestra

Saturday, July 16 2016
Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, MN

Minnesota Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor and piano
Nicola Benedetti, violin
Leonard Elschenbroich, cello

Beethoven, Overture to Fidelio (1814)
Beethoven, Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra “Triple Concerto” (1803)
Brahms, Symphony No. 4 (1885)

Wrapping up a highly satisfying weekend in Minneapolis, I caught a Sommerfest concert highlighted by Beethoven’s rarely heard Triple Concerto.  Rarely heard, I suppose because the number of soloists involved makes it difficult to pull together a polished performance with limited practice time, which is what these summer concert series are for–audience seems to not demand as much perfection when the weather is nice.  Rising stars Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich joined conductor Andrew Litton, who double dutied at the piano, for an admirable attempt at the Triple Concerto.  Prior to Ms. Benedetti and Mr. Elschenbroich taking the stage, Mr. Litton felt compelled to inform us that the two of them are an item, which seemed like unnecessary information at the time but in retrospect may have been to adjust the audience’s Bayesian prior toward the belief that the two of them play as one.  Spoiler alert, they did not.

The whole thing was a mess, really.  By now I expect to cringe at any American orchestra’s wind sections, but Minnesota Orchestra’s (what I presume to be second tier) winds were a notch below that already low bar.  Between that and the poor acoustics of the concert hall, a muffled echo trapped the sounds of the soloists throughout the first movement.  Seemingly desperate to break free, Ms. Benedetti played with much less restraint after the opening movement, and poor Mr. Elschenbroich couldn’t keep up, which led to a labored negotiation between their instruments on tempo that was never quite settled.  (Mr. Litton had his hands full with the piano and was of little help at arbitrating.)  Nevertheless, the audience seemed to appreciate the effort and leapt to its feet with a prolonged standing ovation.

The Brahms symphony in the second half of the concert went much better.  Brahms symphonies are usually good for hiding lack of finesse, and besides I’m certain the orchestra has played Brahms’s 4th countless times in the recent past that little rehearsal time was needed.  Even so, many of the wind solos barely eked out the right notes and made no pretense at any kind of interpretation.  Against this underwhelming backdrop, I led my mind wander and became distracted by the awful florescent blue lighting and the weird 3-dimensional geometric cutouts protruding from the concert hall’s walls; it’s as if someone accepted the challenge to construct a more trippy version of David Geffen Hall.  At the end, however, Brahms rarely disappoints and the sweeping majesty of the music carried the orchestra to a serviceable, if not rousing, finish.

As for the opening overture, there isn’t much to say except that Beethoven and opera are an odd match.  Still, Beethoven’s got a high batting average, unlike, say, a certain Cleveland catcher that I saw at Target Field on Friday.  Trust me, that will be the best link you click on all week.

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: Nikolai Lugansky Plays Brahms’s First

Saturday, March 19 2016
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC

National Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (1808)


It was the best of the times, it was the worst of the times.  On the one hand, this was the day that I had circled on my calendar many moons ago, the long-awaited spring’s eve that would be the reward for the fall and winter of discontent: Nikolai Lugansky making his annual North American swing, with the National Symphony Orchestra being this year’s lucky band.  What’s more, he would play Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, which is not only one of my very favorite pieces of music, but a piece that until now I have never heard him play, not even on YouTube.  On the other hand, I arrived to a cold, rainy DC sleep deprived and highly distraught.  I had just been informed the night before that I have to vacate my New York apartment much sooner than anticipated–if you have ever tried to look for an apartment in New York on a restricted timeline and a non-banker’s salary, you’d sympathize–and instead of relaxing and maybe pregaming, I spent the long bus ride down I-95 navigating the stages of anger and bargaining.  (And the ensuing time in the metro instinctively stepping away from the train tracks–House of Cards fans would understand.)

Having been to some of the world’s most renowned concert halls–Musikverein in Vienna, Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, not to brag or anything–I have to say that the Concert Hall at Kennedy Center is the Pareto optimum between stately and understated.  Unfortunately, it is also the global minimum in acoustics.  Either that, or Mr. Vänskä made some curious conducting choices.  Brahms’s First is many things–passionate, foreboding, a mishmash of the entire German tradition from Bach to Schumann with a hint of folk idioms–but muted should not be one of them.  Yet such was the overall impression given by everyone on stage.  Right off the bat, it is clear that the NSO is nowhere near the level of the other American orchestras that I’ve listened to so far this season.  They play remarkably in sync, but underneath the synchronicity is a smattering of off-pitch instruments and an incoherence in expression.  Still, like how our brains can autocorrect typos to enable us to read heavily misspelled paragraphs, I think my brain superimposed more pleasant recordings of the piece over the orchestra’s playing.  Not over the soloist, though, of course not, even if Brahms is possibly not the most natural composer for Mr. Lugansky’s style.  The piano enters the concerto near the end of the orchestra’s opening exposition, after an exaltation of the first violins that I react very strongly to but, for the life of me, cannot figure out what that reaction is exactly.  Tonight–and this is just me–perhaps due to the stressful reminder of stability’s transience, those notes right before the piano’s entry sparked memories of beautifully fragile quotes from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  I’m used to the piano starting assertively and in somewhat of a contrast with the orchestra, which was not the soloist’s choice.  This is in and of itself fine, but for some reason or another, the soloist and the orchestra never developed any credible rapport throughout the performance.

Prior to tonight I had heard Mr. Lugansky in person three times, twice playing Rachmaninoff and once giving a recital highlighted by an esoteric Schubert sonata, all highly technical pieces with significant built-in emotion.  Brahms, on the other hand, requires perhaps more explicit emoting on the pianist’s part.  Not that Mr. Lugansky is lacking in anyway emotionally, but rather what I’ve long admired about him is the way his highly polished and slightly aloof virtuosity paradoxically generates energy and passion.  Yet against the sloppy mess that was the orchestra, the soloist’s crisp dexterity was nearly wasted.  It certainly did not help that the conductor brought the second movement, particularly the piano’s unaccompanied passages, to a painfully slow and quiet whisper, which in my opinion was neither the intent of the composer nor the strength of the performer.  Fortunately, toward the end of the third movement the sheer force of the score overcame the orchestra’s shortcomings, and with Mr. Lugansky as animated as I’ve ever seen him, the pianist and the orchestra found just enough common ground with each other and with the music to bring the piece to its deserved rousing finish, whence the audience started to clap as the final notes were still being played.

The second half of the program was Beethoven’s Sixth, which, who cares.  Kidding, kidding, though anyone looking for a comprehensive review of the symphonic part of the program will have to look elsewhere.  Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies tend to be more low-key and less fatalistic than his odd-numbered ones, and there is little in the joyful Sixth Symphony that recalls the intensity of the Fifth, which is remarkable considering that Beethoven had composed the two pieces at roughly the same time.  I guess the Fifth reflected the stormy climates of Vienna while the Sixth took after the composer’s sanctuary in the countryside.  What also struck me about the Sixth, besides its overall pleasantness, is how much closer it is to Brahms than it is to Haydn in both form and content; certainly this is the most Romantic of the Beethoven symphonies that I have heard this season.  The NSO and Mr. Vänskä did a much better job here than with the Brahms, though certain parts were still played in an inexplicably lethargic way and even the very polite DC audience seemed a bit impatient toward the end.

After the concert, Mr. Lugansky kindly held a CD signing session.  When it was my turn, I told him that I’m a big fan, and that I had come from New York to see him.  He seemed very pleased by this and told me that he will be playing in New York next year.  It is settled then: however much my next apartment costs, it will almost be worth it.


Review: Brahms’s Double Concerto, Philadelphia Orchestra

Saturday, October 24 2015
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Donald Runnicles, conductor

David Kim, violin
Hai-Ye Ni, cello

Mozart, Symphony No. 29 in A major (1774)
Brahms, Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (“Double”) (1887)
R. Strauss, Don Juan (1888)

The third week of October must be National Brahms Week or something.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra brought Brahms’s 2nd Symphony to Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic is presenting an all-Brahms program, kind of, with the 1st Symphony and the “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello as well as Detleve Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie, whatever that is.  Some 90 miles away, the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing the Double Concerto as well.  Whereas New York’s program features world-renowned soloists Lisa Batiashvili and Gautier Capuçon, Philadelphia is drawing from its own roster with concertmaster David Kim and principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni.  Naturally, this warrants a road trip to Philly.  (Well, that, and I have some quarterly errands to run in the old stomping grounds anyway.)

The first time that I attended a concert in Verizon Hall back in 2008, I thought the venue was somewhat of an anachronism.  Though beautifully designed in the shape of a violin, its sleek modern construction seemed contradictory to the mostly centuries-old music often heard on its stage.  Over time (thanks to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s amazing student ticket program), however, not only did I come to appreciate its ample amenities and carefully calibrated acoustics, it became the very emblem of the grad school phase of my life: high or low, light or heavy, all notes eventually came to pass as a rich, transformative melody is invariably left behind.  Filling the void.

Enough reminiscing for now, let’s get to the performance.  So, Mozart.  I have probably played (and sung!) more Mozart than I have of any other composer.  This is a true statement, though not particularly meaningful–we are talking about the difference between zero and epsilon.  I bring it up, however, because Mozart occupies a strange position in my aesthetics hierarchy.  With a few important exceptions, I find his music uninteresting to listen to, but when I play his music, I am always in awe of his genius. Playing Mozart is like what mathematicians say about tensor products: once you understand it, the concept seems so natural that it’s as if it’s always been part of your life, even if you were struggling with it in the very recent past.

With that in mind, and having never played the Symphony No. 29, or any symphony for that matter since I have never touched a string or wind instrument, I thought the piece—both the music and the performance thereof—was just OK. Though composed almost exclusively for strings, somehow I didn’t think it effectively showcased the Philadelphia Sound. It’s whimsical and effervescent, a change from the heavier motifs that would characterize the next century and a half of classical music, but it was also just…so ordinary to listen to. It did not help that, given the greatest string section in the world, the conductor didn’t ask for much except the right notes at the right tempo with just the prescribed, almost mechanical amount of levity. Yes, the end result still sounded good, but I would not have made the trek from New York just for this. Early-stage Mozart probably sounds best in a small, chamber-like setting in any case.

Of course, I didn’t make the trek just for the Mozart symphony. The main event was Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello. Post-Classical composers tend to write concertos that feature the soloist as an entity separate from the orchestra, and as such few concertos post-Beethoven feature multiple soloists. Brahms’s Double Concerto is an important and marvelous exception where both the violin and the cello are given ample virtuosic passages without overshadowing each other or the orchestra. Moreover, the soloists are given distinct voices and characters despite often playing the same melody at the same time.

The opening of the concerto was a bit shaky, with the cello entering on the lowest notes of its range before straining to reach its highest and then falling back. Ms. Ni struggled a bit with this entrance and was slightly off in pitch. (I had listened to a performance of this piece on Youtube featuring the Capuçon brothers as soloists and found that Gautier had struggled similarly.) Mr. Kim’s violin entered on the right pitch, but he played his initial notes so softly that they were barely audible. After reinforcement from the orchestra, however, the soloists promptly regrouped and, in the remainder of the first movement, combined to form a super-instrument that not only showcased their combined range, but also their combined textures and temperaments with the sweet, lithe violin and the assertive, full-bodied cello. The second movement has the two soloists gently leading the orchestra in a sentimental tune. The long, lyrical passages here is where Mr. Kim really shines. The final movement is a rondo built on a memorable gypsy theme introduced by Ms. Ni, who struck the right balance between playfulness of the melody and the inherent thoughtfulness of the cello. The soloists and the orchestra then took turns with the theme, showcasing the multifaceted relationships between the soloists as well as between the soloists and the orchestra. The soloists are at times partners, at times competitors, and the orchestra, unlike in most Romantic-era concertos, are not relegated to the background but rather support and imitate the soloists and vice versa. They complete each other’s phrases and accompany each other. Like a family.

Next to Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss is arguably the most prominent embodiment of the Romantic ideal of synergy between literature and music. (He is also, to my ear, the composer that John Williams copies most from. The Don Juan theme sounds so familiar, have I heard a derivative of it in Star Wars?) Apparently Strauss’s two favorite operas are Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, so I suppose it makes sense that he superimposed undying love and passion’s fickleness to depict a man eternally in love with love in Don Juan. Though ostensibly a tone poem, Don Juan loosely follows the three-movement sonata form, with a remarkably tender and longing middle section that was played beautifully by the orchestra’s principal oboist Richard Woodhams. The ending was a memorable one, where Runnicles injected his only personal touch of the night with an extra-long pause after our anti-hero’s death before finishing with a subdued coda. In the 1890s, such music had been considered avant-garde. Will the atonal compositions of today be canonized by the 2140s by an audience more numerous than just New York music critics? I’d find that difficult to believe, or rather to accept. Of course, in all likelihood I won’t be around to find out. More depressingly, if the empty seats in Verizon Hall tonight were an indication, maybe nobody else will care to either.

Review: Beethoven and Brahms, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tuesday, October 20 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Lars Vogt, piano

Sebastian Currier, Divisions (2014)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1800)
Brahms, Symphony No. 2 (1877)

Ah, Andris Nelsons.  The mythical savior of classical music.  As busy as these days have been for me, and as many amazing concerts as this autumn is bringing, how can I pass up the chance to see and hear for myself what the savior is like in the flesh?

Hearing, there was plenty of.  Seeing, not so much.  I’ve been to Carnegie Hall about ten times and have purchased so-called “partially obstructed view” tickets at least half of those times.  Every single time until today, the obstruction has been a railing here or a column there–all one has to do is to lean slightly, if that, to see the entire stage unobstructed.  Well, today my luck ran out.  Sitting in the leftmost Balcony section, I had to basically lean on top of the person in front of me to see the conductor, hover above my seat to see the pianist, and there was no chance of seeing the violinists.  I did my best to keep an eye on Nelsons, but that made for an uncomfortable experience and many passages of music flowed past me instead of through me.  That is of course neither Nelsons’s nor the BSO’s fault.  I do wonder if not being able to see the musicians contributed to my perceived disjointedness of the orchestra’s playing at junctures when the melody switches instruments.  This was the BSO’s only flaw as far as I could hear, and perhaps therein lies the cause, that hearing was as far as I got.  I don’t even recall the concertmaster tuning the orchestra–did he do it and I just missed it because I couldn’t see him?  Incidentally, among the musicians I could see, BSO looked like a somewhat better dressed version of the software engineering team of a tech startup–nearly all male and white.  Not judging, just saying.

As is probably in Carnegie Hall’s charter, every visiting orchestra must bring a piece of music composed after WWII.  I imagine this was true even when Carnegie Hall opened in 1891, because not being ahead of its times is for amateurs, obvs.  While reviewing the Philadelphia Orchestra last week for the New York Times, this David Allen fellow wrote, and I quote: “Rather than treating its Carnegie appearances as a platform for invention that might be thought risky on home turf, the orchestra’s four programs this season are so nostalgic they would make Leopold Stokowski blush: Just 12 minutes of those concerts will be devoted to music written after that magician left Philadelphia in 1941”.  So long as we are measuring an orchestra’s worth by the amount of programming it devotes to post-1941 music, I’m going to save Mr. Allen some time and report that the BSO, in its three Carnegie Hall concerts this week, is also playing exactly 12 minutes of such music.  As far as post-1941 music goes, Divisions is actually pretty tolerable.  Commissioned to commemorate the WWI centennial, the piece shifts from one definition of divisions to another, and as the composer explains in the program notes, “this movement towards wholeness proves ephemeral.  The drumbeat of war is never far off.”  Fascinating stuff.

The rest of the nearly 2.5 hour concert was devoted to the standard German repertoire, as is the Elektra concert tomorrow; the final concert on Thursday, featuring Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, will miss Mr. Allen’s 1941 cutoff by a hair–what was Nelsons thinking?  Oh right, he’s thinking that he wasn’t appointed the Gewandhauskapellmeister of Gewandhausorchester for post-1941 music.  He may also be thinking that he has five years or so to audition for the Berlin job.  Who knows.  I will say that he appears to be a classy guy–walking a distance behind the soloist, calling out the wind principals before taking a bow himself–and that his conducting style appears fluid and expressive but controlled and organic.

Beethoven has a high batting average when it comes to piano concertos and everything else he composed.  He is also far and away the King of Second Movements.  The second movements of his 1st and 5th Piano Concertos, 7th Symphony, and 8th Piano Sonata are pretty darn close to my favorite 45 minutes of music.  I listened to the 3rd Piano Concerto in its entirety for the first time this afternoon and nearly melted during the second movement.  To me the 1st Concerto is tender, the 5th is contemplative, and the 3rd…it conjures up subconscious emotions that I can’t even describe.  Like reflecting on youth with hard-won wisdom of old age, wistful yet content, holding on but also letting go.  Much of my emotions are triggered by a simple yet sweeping E-D sharp-C sharp, C sharp-B-A progression.  Against the achingly mellow orchestra, I felt a chill at those notes.  The pianist, on the other hand, sounded a bit dull.  I couldn’t see him, but on the part of the stage that I could see, the violists, cellists, and bassists all seemed disinterested during the solo piano passages, particularly the first-movement cadenza.  There was no tension in their posture, instead one could hear and feel a palpable break of focus.  Then again, the version I had listened to this afternoon featured Krystian Zimerman, the gold standard in bringing subtle and refined emotion out of every note, and every pianist in the world would probably pale in comparison to him on this piece.

Brahms’s 2nd Symphony, described as idyll with a touch of threat of storm that dissolves into joy, is a great showcase for the BSO.  Its strings sounded amazing, and there were no weaknesses in the winds.  Nelsons gently guided the orchestra and the audience through the first two movements of pastoral serenity with hints of fate’s shadow before the music switches gears, bursting into a charming scherzo and finally building up to an unforgettably triumphant blaze of the trombones.  The larger-than-life score reverberated throughout the hall, and I thought that the final five minutes of the symphony were about as thrilling as any performance I have ever attended.  A few years ago, after a Philadelphia Orchestra concert that featured this piece, I wrote on Facebook, “Dear Mr. Nézet-Séguin, it should be possible to conduct Brahms without breaking into a modern dance routine.”  I’ve grown to be quite fond of Yannick since then, but still the point stands, and tonight Nelsons proved it to be so.

Review: Dvořák and Brahms, World Civic Orchestra feat. Hai-Ye Ni

Sunday, September 6 2015
Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY

World Civic Orchestra
Vincent Koh, conductor
Hai-Ye Ni, cello

Kevin Clark, Impressions of Manhattan
Dvořák, Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191 (1895)
Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)
Dvořák, Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor, Op. 72 (1869)
Brahms, Hungarian Dance No.5 in G minor (1878)

I remember the exact moment when music transformed from a hobby to something indispensable to life.  It was a Thursday in March 2012, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was performing the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s soulful Concierto de Aranjuez.  About three minutes in, a solo cello entered with an expressive minor key theme.  The rich texture of that cello, its depth and warmth invoking hopefulness and wistfulness at once, grabbed me in a way strings never had before.  To this day, it is one of my favorite passages of music.

Today’s concert did not feature the guitar concerto.  It did, however, feature that cellist–Hai-Ye Ni, principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  World Civic Orchestra, whatever it is, is not a first-rate orchestra, but first-rate orchestras don’t tend to invite other orchestras’ cellists to perform as soloist.  I’ll take what I can get.

Which, outside of Ms. Ni, wasn’t very much.  The first piece, Impressions of Manhattan, was composed by a member of the orchestra whose day job is an ophthalmologist.  I am usually wary of these original compositions, as they tend to be too avant-garde for my liking.  Fortunately, that appears to be reserved for first-rate bands as well.  This one was basically just an arrangement (maybe not even that) of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with some electric jazz toward the end, which was actually listenable, a pleasant surprise.

Next we get to the main event, Ms. Ni taking the stage to perform arguably one of the two greatest pieces in the cello concerto repertoire.  (Off topic: I’d be really interested to hear her take on the other of the two, the Elgar concerto.)  It was such a treat to listen to her perfect intonation and clean yet emotive sound soaring over the stage for more than a few seconds at a time.  It reminds me of listening to Hilary Hahn on the violin.  All the orchestra really had to do after the introduction was to stay out of the way, which, I’m sorry to say, it didn’t do sufficiently well.  But still the wonderful cellist and the sublime score lifted the orchestra through a full gauntlet of moods: dark and stormy in the prologue, the assertiveness of the cello’s entrance dissolving into a lyrical adagio, and an elegy in the final movement to Dvořák’s unrequited love Josephina, who had died during the composition of the piece, giving away to a jubilant conclusion.  Though nominally not a piece with heavy American influences, I feel that I can always hear hints of Americana in Dvořák.  Strangely enough, I always hear Chinese elements in his works as well.
imageAfter the esteemed soloist departed, the less said about the orchestra’s messy performance of Brahms’s Symphony No.3 the better.  Vincent Koh however was clever to end with two crowd-pleasing codas that serve to both recap the theme of the program and highlight the passable string sections of the orchestra over the highly questionable winds.  I mean, it’s hard to not want to dance along to the Slavonic and especially the Hungarian dance.  Overall, however, I’m actually really looking forward to the beginning of New York Philharmonic’s season later this month, and I *really* cannot wait to hear Ms. Ni again, next time back with her whole Philly band, at Carnegie Hall later in the fall.