Monday, March 02, 2009

Two nights with the London Philharmonic

I have a friend from NYRO who works for Lincoln Center. She was able to procure some free tickets for Friday and Sunday’s performances of the London Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. I checked with Kate and we planned to go to Sunday’s all-Rachmaninoff concert. I made plans to go out drinking with some friends from work on Friday evening. Then, on Friday afternoon, another friend from NYRO who had also taken advantage of the free tickets offer had an extra ticket for that evening’s concert. So I arranged to meet her there after a quick beer with my friends. I can’t turn down free tickets.

I got to Avery Fisher at 7:45, just in time for us to find our seats. The orchestra wasn’t on stage yet even though it was nearly 8 PM and the concert was about to begin. My friend suggested that it was a European custom to take the stage just before the concert started, and apparently she was correct as he orchestra took the stage en masse a few minutes after 8. Their strings’ seating arrangement was different from what I’m used to. Normally, orchestras have the first and second violins on the conductor’s left and the violas, cellos, and basses on his right. The London Philharmonic sat with the first violins to the left of conductor Vladimir Jurowski, as usual, but the second violins were on his right, directly opposite the firsts. The violas were next to the seconds, and the cellos and basses were next to the first violins. In other words, the cellos and basses were on the “wrong” side of the orchestra. The program for Friday’s concert included works by Mahler and Strauss, and this seating arrangement was more common in their time, though I didn’t remember that at first.

Introspection was the theme of Friday’s concert, and Mahler’s “Adagio” from Symphony No. 10 was a subtle choice for the opener. It’s not overly flashy or bombastic, but it has plenty of melodic lines and Mahlerian traits and it provides a top orchestra with many chances to show off. It also has one fortississimo blast from the orchestra about 3/4 of the way in, and this mighty exclamation had an unintended effect on at least one person in the audience. We were seated in the second tier, so we had a view of the orchestra-level seats. When the Philharmonic struck this massive chord, an old woman sitting on the aisle a few rows from the stage jumped out of her seat and actually walked around in a daze for a few seconds. Her coat flew one way, her program flew another, and she looked confused. By the time an usher reached her, her husband had directed her back to her seat. No one in the orchestra noticed, but I’m sure many people in the hall were as distracted by her as we were.

Leon Fleischer was the soloist for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, the second work on the program. Fleischer is in his 80s and, as my companion put it, he played the concerto the way an 80-year-old man would. He missed a few notes here and there, and his entrances were a bit shaky, but overall his was a cheerful, colorful performance. However, I didn’t feel as if the orchestra was as invested in the music. The best thing I could say about the whole concerto was that it felt limp. When I think of Mozart, I think light, energetic, and sprightly, and this rendition was none of those things. I’m sure the London Philharmonic has been on tour for several weeks by now and may be tired of some of the music they’re playing. It showed in the Mozart.

The second half of the concert was an improvement over the first half. The Philharmonic began with Gyorgi Ligeti’s Atmospheres, a nine-minute atonal work with individual parts for each string instrument along with the rest of the orchestra (which accounted for 87 total parts). I only knew of Ligeti’s music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while this work was not used in that film, the sound reminded me of that music. At one point I noticed Jurowski was beating time with his right hand and, with his upraised left hand, counting up from 1 to 5. I nudged my friend and pointed out what he was doing. By this time she caught on, he was counting back down from 5 with the same hand. I hardly noticed that the music had faded out. It didn’t dawn on me what was happening until he reached 1 and the trumpets played the famous fanfare that opens Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Rather than end the Ligeti to applause from the audience, Jurowski had opted to go straight into Strauss’s most well-known opening. It was incredibly effective. The Strauss also seemed like the piece that the orchestra most enjoyed playing, and the audience reaction at the conclusion was wildly enthusiastic. As I expected from an orchestra on tour, Jurowski and the orchestra took several curtain calls and after a few minutes of applause, played a five-minute encore from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

After the concert, we left Avery Fisher Hall and saw that the Metropolitan Opera was just wrapping up the second intermission of Madama Butterfly. Kate had gone to the opera with a friend who works at the Met, and since we were both going to be at Lincoln Center at the same time, we had tried to make plans to meet up but the different ending times for our two concerts made that difficult. Still, we walked over to the Met, hoping that Kate and her friend might be lingering in the lobby. As we approached the Met, I noticed a woman in a bright red blouse standing on the balcony overlooking Lincoln Center Plaza. I said “I think that’s Kate” and pointed up at her. She pointed back, and we shouted our greetings, Kate from the balcony and me from the plaza below. It was a lovely moment that needed its own music, and it was only slightly trashy that we were yelling at each other in a public plaza like characters from A Streetcar Named Desire. We decided to meet in an hour when her show let out, and my friend and I went to get something to eat.

Sunday’s concert was a much more traditional affair. When the orchestra took the stage, they were in a typical configuration with the first and second violins on the conductor’s left and the violas, cellos and basses on his right. They played an all-Rachmaninoff program that featured three works with which I was unfamiliar: the Isle of the Dead, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Symphonic Dances. I especially enjoyed the concerto, which was full of Rachmaninoff’s characteristic crashing piano chords and sweeping hyper-Romantic melodies. The theme from the second movement reminded me of the slow movement from Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, with its jazz-like theme that returned at the conclusion of the work. I was surprised that the orchestra didn’t play an encore, but given that most of Rachmaninoff’s repertoire is for solo piano and orchestra, I’m not sure what they would have played to follow up the Symphonic Dances. It was a great concert, though I must admit that I found Friday night’s performance much more enjoyable.

On both nights, I was impressed with Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting. He was crisp and clear without being overly dramatic, despite the lush Romantic music on both programs. At the end of the concert on Sunday, he did something I’ve never seen a conductor do before: he shook hands with all of the principal string players (who sit right in front of the podium), then he walked to the back and shook hands with the principal bassist. One of my friends who is a regular at NYRO concerts jokingly asked me why our music director never singles out a last-stand violinist or violist for a solo bow at the end of the concert. Jurowski’s recognition of the bass section reminded me of that joke.

The other major difference with both concerts vs. my regular New York Philharmonic concerts at Avery Fisher Hall was the audience. In my experience, NY Philharmonic audiences are mostly quiet and restrained, with a minimum of rustling programs or other extraneous noises. The audience for both London Philharmonic concerts was restless, fidgety, and noisy. On both nights, we had people nearby who were fiddling with plastic bags and papers. At Friday’s concert, a young girl in our row had a cellophane bag of candy which she kept opening and closing. On Sunday, the couple behind us had a plastic grocery bag of some kind that they were constantly adjusting, and at one point they dropped something that landed with a thud like a canteloupe. My theory for both concerts is that they gave out the tickets on the subway. Maybe it’s just me, and audiences for the NY Philharmonic are no better; I just have quiet people in my section.

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