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.