Music / New York Arts / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

The New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano; at Davies Hall, San Francisco, play Dvořák, Lindberg, and Tchaikovsky

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Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Photo Chris Lee.
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Photo Chris Lee.

The New York Philharmonic

Alan Gilbert, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dvořák – Carnival Overture, Opus 92
Lindberg – Piano Concerto No. 2
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Opus 36

I caught recently one of the concerts given in Davies Hall by the New York Philharmonic, my old hometown band, as part of our 100th Anniversary Season. It was enough to set me thinking again about the role a good hall plays in shaping the fame of an ensemble.

Fifty years of struggle with the Lincoln Center acoustic has clearly left its mark on the New York orchestra’s reputation — though I must say not on the quality of its playing — which remains stunningly world class. But one is surprised to find in the sonority a burnished warmth and tonal delicacy similar to that of the Cleveland Orchestra. Understated tonal virtues have seldom been possible at Broadway and 65th Street. At least in the way we think of the orchestra. But they were notable here and speak well of Alan Gilbert’s Music Directorship.

The original Philharmonic Hall of 1962 sounded like a loud and glaring stereo system. Some patrons immediately regretted the move from Carnegie’s refined acoustic. But the violins and brass could really slice into you excitingly in the new hall. And the personality of the space played well with the brassy vibrancy of the Bernstein period — with its Stravinsky, Copland, Mahler, Hindemith and Nielsen. Only a later move to Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal would give Bernstein’s conducting sound a more recognizably “beautiful” patina again. Philharmonic hall, you might say, kept artificially alive Bernstein’s reputation for brightly lit performances. And Boulez’ hard-as-nails tenure as the next Music Director appeared to set the notion in stone as part of the orchestra’s personality.

By 1976, acoustical renovations, performed with a grant from Avery Fisher, evened things out a bit for the orchestra. But Mehta, Masur and Maazel were then left to cope with a certain boxiness tainting the naturalness of the sound. To this day, Avery Fisher hall projects a coloration and can sometimes stamp brass chords across the footlights like stemware being crunched in a napkin at a Jewish wedding. One awaits the next move at Lincoln Center. But the beauty of the Davies Hall appearance reminds one that New York has on offer a jewel of an orchestra whose allure only awaits its proper natural setting.

I cannot say I admired the NYPO’s choice of tour programming as much as the playing itself. It amounted to the usual balancing of a difficult modern work with the overly familiar. But that said, I was stunned by the tonal appeal of the woodwinds in the central lyrical episode of the Carnival Overture and by the sheer accuracy of the fast passagework elsewhere. Music lovers familiar with the George Szell recording of the overture know well to wait for the fourth iteration of the main theme, where the horns seem to whoop joyous somersaults over the top of the orchestra. Gilbert matched him there and brought down the house. An octogenarian sitting next to me with a Bronx accent and two hearing aids turned and said “Isn’t that simply the most beautiful performance you’ve ever heard?” “Yes,” I half shouted! But I meant it.

Indeed, Alan Gilbert appears vibrantly at home with the New York Philharmonic. He is lean and svelte these days and dances beautifully with the music, moving forward and back with one foot permanently ahead of the other. His conducting gestures are natural and, moreover, comprehensible to an audience. When he makes a visible cue, something audibly happens. And his energy level is far greater than early television appearances as Music Director would have suggested. An interesting conductor.

The Magnus Lindberg Second Piano Concerto, which occupied most of the first half, left me feeling very clever, because I could determine that it clearly had something in common with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. If I had properly read the program notes, of course, I would have learned as much in words and felt less smug, since the Ravel, it turns out, was Lindberg’s intended starting point. In actual fact, though, I ended up finding more Busoni in it than anything else. Imagine the busiest rippling passagework from the Busoni concerto going full tilt and with full pedal. Surround this with plush orchestral four-note chromatic motifs that sound like Finnish Reger, let the horns suggest Howard Hanson, throw in the snare drum and the growling and groaning in the basement from the Ravel, make sure everything is rolling loudly along at once and most of the individual notes on the piano cannot be heard and — presto! There you have it! And of course, who better than Yefim Bronfman to tackle it! It was child’s play for him, it seemed. But I don’t blame him for playing the concerto from the sheet music. As it ended, the man with the hearing aids turned to me and said “Tell me, would it bother you, if you never heard it again…?” I shouted my answer. Guess.

The New York Philharmonic and the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony are old personal friends. Daniel Barenboim recorded it in 1970, a studio taping the day after a more vibrant performance week. It featured some interesting ritards and emphases he didn’t dare put on record.  I was in the audience. About a decade later, Bernstein came up with similar eccentricities he did not fear to record. Alan Gilbert’s traversal of the piece, as it happens, was as exciting as either and more beautifully polished, which takes some doing in this symphony.

The key to understanding the Tchaikovsky Fourth is to note that it trades constantly in the changing of speed. It leaves you breathless. Everything is either speeding up or slowing down, sometimes both seemingly at once. The main Allegro theme of the first movement, for example, begins haltingly but concludes with an accelerating  upward sweep. The music always seems to be frantically catching up with itself, finishing a phrase with an explosion, or setting out on a new chase. When stasis comes, as in the droopy waltz portion of the first movement, it doesn’t last for long. The waltz turns sylph-like, and distant drums tap faintly, deceptively. And, before you know it, Tchaikovsky is gearing up to come at you full tilt again. Between the near-violent assertiveness of the unifying “fate” motif and the constant upshifting and downshifting of sprockets, one might be forgiven for thinking oneself trying to cross a dangerous speedway on foot.

Gilbert’s way with the piece suited its many moods.  The beauty of woodwind tone continued to stun throughout. The pizzicato movement dropped away as if on cat’s paws. And the Finale brought a crushing finality to itself twice-over with its fanfare-related shock chords, before rushing for the finish line.  I’m always been surprised that more composers haven’t used Tchaikovsky’s trick of coming to a crashing halt.  Only Hindemith pulls off a similar effect in his Symphony in E-flat, composed in 1940.

But the evening was a New York triumph, and it was gratifying to see the genuine enthusiasm with which the orchestra was received. Anything else would have been disappointing.  The New York Philharmonic, after all, is six years older than the city by the bay.

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