Thursday, June 18, 2009

Up front at the NY Philharmonic

We attended Thursday's performance of the NY Philharmonic with free tickets. Well, they weren't really free. I had two pairs of ticket vouchers for this season. One was for having bought my subscription extra early last year, and I used that voucher for last month's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with Alan Gilbert conducting. The other was for answering a long online survey about the Philharmonic's Summer Classics concert series. I don't remember which voucher I used for tonight's concert, but the point is that the tickets weren't my usual seats in the first tier. These seats were in row H of the orchestra section, to the right of the conductor's podium. So we were about 20 feet from Lorin Maazel when he took the stage to conduct two of his own works and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2.

I haven't sat up front for an orchestra concert before. I don't like being that close to the orchestra; it's impossible to see any of the musicians beyond the first two rows of strings. I like to watch the brass and percussion, but from our seats those instruments were just sounds coming from somewhere in the rear of the stage. However, the benefit of sitting that close was that we had a fantastic view of Maazel as he conducted, and we could see his rapport with Glenn Dicterow and the other principal strings. I especially enjoyed watching Maazel's gestures and facial expressions. He's not an animated conductor, so when his face became particularly emotional, it was clear what he was feeling and what he expected from his musicians. And watching Dicterow, for example, you could see the respect that the orchestra has for him. Maazel's two compositions were interesting, though I don't think I'll run out and buy recordings of them. There were some melodic moments in the second piece, but mostly it was loud bangs from the percussion and bleats and honks from the brass, with glissando string accompaniment. I've become more tolerant of atonal music as I've grown older, but it's still not really my thing.

The Sibelius symphony was as tonal as the first two works were atonal. I've always loved Sibelius's Second Symphony, and this performance was as exciting and energetic as I could have hoped. I know the work well but I'm not familiar with the details of the score. Maazel conducted without one, and as always I have no idea how he managed to get through a work full of tempo changes and dynamic adjustments without referring to the music. Even at his age, his command of the music is undiminished. The viola section was directly in front of us, so I could watch the musicians' fingers and note how they played certain passages. I was surprised to see that some musicians fingered a part one way while others used a different fingering. For some reason, I'd assumed that not only did Philharmonic musicians coordinate their bowings down to the inch, they used identical fingerings as well.

My favorite part of the night's performance was the last movement of the symphony. I know how the work ends, with broad brass chords and strings sawing away, but the buildup to the grandiose finale always fools me. The lead-up to the coda is a repeated minor key passage with the winds playing the melody and the strings playing a quiet accompaniment. The passage repeats, with the volume gradually increasing, but each time the orchestra reaches the end of the phrase, it returns to the minor key. I knew that the turn back to the major key was coming, but the repeated returns to the minor melody built the tension in a way I'd never felt just by listening to a recording. When the orchestra finally reached the major key turning point, Maazel gave a huge cue to the brass and there was a sense of glorious release. It was practically sexual, which I really didn't expect from Sibelius. But it really was that intense a feeling. I had chills throughout the last movement. I was out of my seat almost as soon as the music ended, and I had a brief sense that people sitting on that level aren't supposed to be that enthusiastic that quickly. But I didn't care.

Next weekend is Maazel's final concert series as music director of the Philharmonic, and they're performing another one of my favorite works: Mahler's Eighth Symphony. I'm going to next Friday's concert, and I'm already excited. You can expect more words on this subject in this space next week.

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