The New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics concert series isn't the type of performance I would normally seek out. They play "greatest hits" like overtures, opera arias, waltzes, and popular concertos that have been over-programmed for years. But I had an extra ticket from last Saturday's concert that I had to use, so I exchanged it for Tuesday evening's all-Russian program, conducted by Bramwell Tovey and featuring the young Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan.
At first glance, I didn't recognize anyone in the Philharmonic. Was I in the right concert hall? It looked like all of the regular string, wind, and brass principals had the night off. For a moment I wondered if this was the Philharmonic's "B" squad. I wouldn't fault the orchestra if it were; the subscription season ended on Saturday, and everyone deserves a vacation. Then I noticed a few regular string players and a couple of horns I knew and felt more at home. The audience was a bit more casual than the usual Philharmonic crowd. While there were a few men and women who appeared overdressed for the occasion (suits and slinky cocktail dresses) there were many other people who were well-underdressed. I saw more jeans and polo shirts than ever before. In that way it looked more like a typical Broadway musical audience than a Philharmonic one.
Mr. Tovey served as conductor and host, and he excelled in both roles. As a conductor, he led the orchestra with energy and vigor and looked like he was having the time of his life. As host, he said a few words about each piece on the program and cracked a few jokes about the music and his British heritage. I expected his banter to be cheesy, tired old jokes but he was light and engaging. And the audience loved him.
The program opened with Prokofiev's March and Scherzo from The Love of Three Oranges, followed by Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, superbly played by Simonyan. He's only 24 and his reading reflected his age. It was a little rough in a few places and he and the orchestra were not always completely together. But Simonyan's performance was exciting and he added a few touches that made the piece his own, such as taking a bit of extra time in certain places. The work is flashy but lyrical, and he found a happy medium between the two extremes. The audience roared its approval and Simonyan responded with a colorful gypsy melody for an encore.
The second half of the program began with selections from Alexander Glazunov's ballet Raymonda. The Philharmonic hadn't played this music in nearly forty years, and I always enjoy hearing the orchestra play something with which they're not readily familiar. I've heard some of Glazunov's music before, but the opening to this piece sounded like the music of Richard Strauss before it settled into a more familiar Slavic tonality. The concert closed with Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, a rousing ode to Russian soldiers going off to fight in Serbia in 1876. While it's the lesser-known cousin of the much more famous 1812 Overture, the work is full of its own patriotic melodies, and under Tovey's baton the Philharmonic played it with all the nationalistic fervor it deserves.
I don't know if I would go to a Summertime Classics concert again, but I'm glad I went to this one. I understand the appeal. They're performances for a more casual audience, one that's less familiar with the classical repertoire. In that respect they're not really my thing. I'd recommend them for a prospective listener who wants to hear the Philharmonic play "popular" classical music in a fun, friendly atmosphere.