The A-list contains works that are already familiar to most concertgoers either through live performances or recordings. Their presence on programs means that audiences can anticipate their experience and compare their expectations with what they actually hear, for better or worse. The B-list, however, consists of works by composers which may be familiar, but which are less often performed, and therefore may offer listeners a first-time concert experience. Such was the case with the program offered by the TMC Monday night at Tanglewood. Membership in the B-list does not imply second-rate quality; it simply means that those responsible for programming (orchestra managers, conductors, commissioning bodies) have less faith in such works to attract audiences who like to know what to expect.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.
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 Boston Symphony began the new year with a reduced ensemble, brilliantly conducted by the early music specialist Ton Koopman. The orchestra didn’t attempt gut strings or period winds and percussion in any way, but the players responded intuitively to Koopman’s brisk tempi and sprung phrasing, resulting in a satisfyingly vigorous, if not quite revelatory Haydn Symphony No. 98, the last of his first set of Salomon symphonies, followed by Yo-Yo Ma’s exuberant, somewhat exaggerated performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, a most welcome and impeccably played symphony by C. P. E. Bach, and a very beautiful Schubert “Unfinished,” limpid in texture and phrased with fine taste and feeling. I’ll say more about this in the context of Alan Gilbert’s almost simultaneous concert, which also paired Schubert’s Eighth with a Haydn symphony of an entirely different kind.
Unfortunately I was not able to attend Alan Gilbert’s first concerts of the season, and this was my first experience of his work with the New York Philharmonic. I did hear his guest concert with the Boston Symphony last spring—a major event, as it included his magnificent Ives Fourth. It happens that both the Boston and the New York program were quite similar and revealed similar qualities in Gilbert’s conducting, although his approach was quite different. Both included a little-known early work by a major twentieth-century composer, and a concerto with a highly-respected pianist, as well as a symphony—eccentric symphonies in both cases, I’m tempted to add.