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.