Go See: New York Philharmonic 2010-11

(First in a series of highly subjective and selective recommendations).

In this burgeoning new era at the New York Philharmonic, it’s no longer a surprise to see a contemporary work like Kraft, the piece that pretty much put composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg on the international map, on a concert program. What is a bit of a surprise, though, and an extraordinarily happy one, is the simple sense of fun involved in the project:

Kraft is a raucous, banging, bright and dirty work, and it’s going to be a thrill to see the junk arrayed in Avery Fisher Hall, hear the piano played like Mr. Hyde’s version of Gershwin. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and that’s some serious good news. Last season’s triumphant production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre succeeded in many important ways – artistically, culturally and financially (that may be the most important) – but the part of it that truly amazed, that went beyond any possible expectations, was how tremendously fun it all was.

There has perhaps never been as much exuberant good humor in Avery Fisher as there was last May. The opera is gleefully mocking of the conventions of operatic music – it opens with a car horn fanfare – and story – audiences may expect The Crazy in opera characters, but not the fornication and defecation. The staging by Doug Fitch and Giants Are Small was imaginative and smart, with the characters in full costume and the scenery created by live projection of animation on a decorative screen hanging above the stage. And by animation I mean hand-made and hand-held, actual miniature models manually manipulated with a deliberate transparency, like an elementary school production but done with sublime craft and a but of gentle mockery at the expense of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was a marvelous combination of Edward Gorey, Ernie Kovacs, Mel Brooks and “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Most fun of all was the performance. Gilbert and the orchestra were superb accompanists to a fabulous cast. Opera orchestras, except for the Met, are usually a cut below the level of the best ensembles, and so it’s a revelation to hear opera music played with such musicality and technical assurance, and the performance exceeded both the fully staged version I saw at the San Francisco Opera and any currently on CD. The musicians didn’t just play, either, they participated gleefully, including pelting the character of the Black Minister with paper at one point in the second act. That singer was Joshua Bloom, and he and the rest of the vocal performers had the most fun of all. See for yourself:

That was Barbara Hannigan almost stealing the show as Gepopo. Almost, because not only was the singing at the highest level, but the cast, which included budding star Eric Owens as Nekrotzar, Anthony Roth Costanzo (who had just recently appeared in City Opera’s fine production of Handel’s Parthenope), Melissa Parks as Mescalina and the great Wilbur Pauley (who has performed everything from Mozart to Harry Partch) as Astradamors, all excelled as performers, clearly relishing their ridiculous characters and the opportunity to embody what was fundamentally a very, very good time. The subscribers who declined to buy tickets to the production were replaced by an eager, excited new audience (the run was sold-out) and many will surely be back. The Philharmonic once again proved their commitment to their new direction, offering the sizzle and serving up the steak, and it is that commitment to explore new ideas at the same high level that they have historically cultivated which makes Avery Fisher an exciting, fun place to be.

With Alan Gilbert, one gets plenty of meat as well. At the end of the season he led concerts in music of Lindberg, HK Gruber, Sibelius, Mozart, Brahms and Wagner. Taken together with previous performances during the season, what it means in musical terms to have Gilbert on the podium is becoming clearer. He is an excellent accompanist, providing alert, clear and sympathetic support to each soloist, even in music that is not so successful, like Gruber’s colorful but unfocussed Aerial for trumpet soloist. Hakan Hardenberger proved that he may be the finest trumpet player in the world, but the concerto doesn’t ultimately say much. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is one of the great ones (Joshua Bell will be playing it in the same concerts with Kraft) and Lisa Batiashvili was impressive in it. She built the swell from emotional desolation to vibrancy with an effective rectitude and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing. Her playing has an intensity that comes across as a sense of masterful control, she’s an intelligent and musical player. Gilbert’s hushed pianissimo at the opening was spine-tingling.

He’s also superb in modern and contemporary music, emphasizing clarity of sound and structure and trusting the musicians implicitly. All the contemporary pieces I heard, including Lindberg’s Arena, were convincingly played. In the older, more familiar repertoire, he clearly favors the Romantic era. His precision of sound and phrasing and his exact rhythmic articulation were a strength in a performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 2, which had a lean quality, perhaps a little too understated in the composer’s most emotionally voluptuous moments, but with real fire in the finale. Principal horn Philip Myers’ solo was some of the finest horn playing I have ever heard, if not the finest. Gilbert’s Mozart is polished, less weighty than his Haydn. He seems to still be figuring out what he thinks of some of the music, and a performance of the Symphony No. 25 alternated a modern weight and strength with a sharp dance movement and a dark and intense finale. HIs shaping of symphonic works follows a consistent path, with Gilbert consistently building towards greater energy, although at times with the sacrifice of too much of the same quality in previous movements.

Along with the new pieces and ideas on the schedule, the greatest moments of the season were in performances of Schumann, Beethoven and Wagner. GIlbert’s Schumann is excellent, singing, flowing, controlled, with wonderful transitions. His Beethoven is superlative, with great weight, power, the right kind of humor and a sense of dignity that is so important in the music. His performance of the Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde was ravishing, with marvelous pianissimo playing and an emphasis on color and instability in the great “Tristan chord,” and the Siegfried Idyll he led was the best I’ve heard. It was fast, gently flowing, with a throbbing, underpinning pulse. Gilbert said so much with each modulation of tempo, he made the music sound spontaneous, as if being played for the first time. The gorgeous closing chord was marred only by the sound of someone strangling herself in the balcony.

The conductor has also shaped the New York Philharmonic’s sound. The orchestra is playing at an extremely high level, and the diet of contemporary music is just going to raise that. Their strength and polish fit the ubiquitous international style of orchestral playing that we now have, but Gilbert’s emphasis on woodwind color has added an Old World warmth and timbre, which is lovely. That sound coupled with Varèse’s orchestral works in the Lincoln Center Festival was a revelation. Not only did the group play this intensely modern music with the highest skill and commitment, they also gave it a sound that fit it back into the history to which the music, and the composer, belongs. Interpretation of the highest order.

So, go see the New York Philharmonic this year. They make gorgeous, exciting music, and they’re a lot of fun.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.