Review: The Four Seasons, New York Philharmonic

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.
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Review: Post-Romantic Nationalism, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Gil Shaham

Tuesday, October 13 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin

Grieg, Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt (1888)
Bartók, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1938)

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 (1919)

Philadelphia Orchestra’s appearances at Carnegie Hall hold prominent places on my calendar and in my heart, like Opening Day or Terence Tao’s lectures on the East Coast.  This preeminent ensemble was the one constant of the six grueling (though ultimately illuminating) years I spent in Philly for grad school, and they feel like family–just watching concertmaster David Kim tuning the orchestra makes me tear up a little.

Major orchestras don’t like to be called out as conservative at Carnegie Hall, and as such they tend to bring somewhat edgy programming.  At least one tonally nontraditional piece seems to be expected, otherwise I would have loved it if Dvořák were substituted for Bartók in this lineup of post-Romantic nationalist composers.  The opening piece, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, was incredible.  It’s a familiar piece, one I thought couldn’t really be messed up (“In the Hall of Mountain King” was played admirably as an encore by a Norwegian youth orchestra at Tivoli this past summer), but at the same time couldn’t really be elevated either.  I was wrong.  During the second, strings-only, movement, “The Death of Åse”, a hush fell over the auditorium and I couldn’t understand how a piece that I had listened to hours before on Youtube and left no impression was suddenly making my soul swell.  I wished time would slow down so that I could remember the sensation of each note, and each bow was bittersweet in its smoothness, like sand passing through an hourglass.  I knew I could listen to this piece again, maybe find another version on Youtube, but it would never be like it was tonight.

Perhaps due to his atonal tendencies, Bartók is one of those composers I simply don’t get.  Gil Shaham has an engaging stage presence, swaying and frolicking with his instrument as if dancing to a Hungarian folk tune.  Sometimes he fiddled inches away from Yannick, and sometimes he was nearly on top of the concertmaster, and neither seemed to mind.  Technically he’s superb, especially through that crazy first movement cadenza, and almost all of the string players on stage were observing the soloist intently during measures of rest, which is not always (or even often) the case.  At the end of it all, however, the piece is just not my style.  Shaham’s encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, was scintillating though in all its baroque glory.

Sibelius is one of my discoveries of 2015, thanks to, of all things, Mozart in the Jungle.  I hadn’t listened to the 5th Symphony until this afternoon, and when I did I immediately took to it and understood why, with its melodic winds and textural strings, the piece was part of the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall programming.  Compared to the other Sibelius pieces that I’ve listened to, the symphony is less bombast than I’d come to expect and more subtle with passages of melancholy, as if the composer’s youthful idealism had given away to the strain and sorrow of age.  It’s a piece that fully highlights the orchestra’s strengths, and even if overshadowed by his players, Yannick did his part to control the tempo of the piece.  This was critical especially toward the end, when Sibelius capped the swan theme finale with six isolated, powerful, mysterious chords.  As the conductor’s arms rested mid-air in between the chords, he was not wearing just his heart on his sleeves, but mine as well.  I love this orchestra so very much.
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