Sunday, April 25, 2010

All Stravinsky, all the time with the New York Philharmonic

I went to the NY Philharmonic's concert on April 24 with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Chorus performing an all-Stravinsky program.

The first piece, the music from the ballet Jeu de Cartes, depicts a card game.  I didn't have a chance to look at the program notes before the concert started so I just listened to the music.  The opening reminded me of Copland's music and the inner sections of the work just sounded frenetic. It wasn't until intermission when I read the program notes and saw that the piece included a number of dance interludes and that the recurring main theme indicated the number of "deals" of cards in the card game.

The second piece was Symphony of Psalms, a choral setting of three psalms with an unusual orchestration of winds, brass, and lower strings (no violins or violas).  The harmonies in this piece were far more atonal than anything of Stravinsky's that I've heard before.  The choral parts reminded me of Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" though that might have been more of a mood than a musical reference.  The Mariinsky Theater Chorus gave the Latin text an ethereal feeling that echoed the religious fervor of the words. 

The highlight of the program was the complete score to Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird.  I've played one of the Firebird suites and I've heard various arrangements of the music, but I'd never heard the complete ballet until Saturday evening.  The ballet features much more music that enhances and expands the story of the Prince, the princesses, the Firebird, and Kastchei.  In addition, the full score employs a massive orchestra with extra winds, offstage trumpets, Wagner horns, and a battery of percussion.  I enjoyed listening for the music that was familiar to me and the buildups that sometimes led to parts less familiar.  It's always a treat for me to watch the brass section preparing to play, and when the percussionists stood up I knew something exciting was about to happen.  These are the things I miss when I play in an orchestra and focused on my own music.  There was a massive brass crescendo that I thought would lead into the "Infernal Dance" (one of my favorite parts of the ballet), and in fact the trombones and trumpets played part of the theme of the dance, but then the crescendo led into another scene.  But when the orchestra finally exploded into the "Infernal Dance" and the trombones blasted away, I was grinning.  And the final apotheosis gave me chills.  The audience was on its feet within seconds of the end of the concert and gave Gergiev a well-deserved ovation. 

Gergiev conducted without a baton and often seemed to be cuing the orchestra and controlling the type of sound rather than marking time with his hands.  Where some conductors favor broad, sweeping gestures and flowery movements of the baton, Gergiev kept his expressiveness to a minimum.  He gave cues, wiggling his fingers at the musicians, and kept time in only the grandest parts of the score and focused on individuals throughout the rest of the music.  It was a theatrical kind of conducting rather than musical.  With the energy he drew from the musicians, I thought that Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic's management had made an excellent choice in selecting Gergiev to direct the Stravinsky festival.  I'm sure his interpretation of The Rite of Spring in a few weeks will be outstanding.

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