Last night's concert by the New York Philharmonic was something of a "greatest hits" show bookending a brand-new song. And we had the rare experience of seeing two different conductors on the same program. Kurt Masur, the scheduled conductor for the program, had an temporary eye infection that "[impeded] his ability to see the score" (according to a program insert from the Philharmonic), so he conducted the opening and closing works on the program, and stepped aside in favor of New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Daniel Boico for Sofia Gubaidulina's Two Paths: Concerto for Two Violas and Orchestra.
The Philharmonic opened the concert with Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Les Preludes, one of my favorites. Masur took the podium and received loud cheers before the orchestra made a sound. He conducted this work (and the Brahms symphony after intermission) from memory and without a baton. Throughout the concert, his conducting consisted more of cues and occasional indications of tempo changes than what I think of as actual conducting. But Masur is in his 80s and while he moved well, he looked his age. He is also Music Director Emeritus of the Philharmonic, and as his audience reception showed, he is still beloved by audiences and familiar with the orchestra and its musicians. I got the feeling that Masur could have communicated whatever he needed to the musicians with his eyebrows and the concert would have been fantastic. And opening with Les Preludes is sort of like Bruce Springsteen opening a show with "Born To Run." It's a great piece of music, an audience favorite, a showcase for the entire orchestra, and music everyone in the group knows well. And it was exciting to hear. The brass fanfares were impressive, but what I enjoyed even more was the balance among all the instrument groups. I heard melodies in the piece that I hadn't heard before. I think I say that often, but it was certainly true last night.
Daniel Boico took the podium for the Gubaidulina concerto. His conducting was almost the polar opposite of Masur's: clear and precise beats for every measure, left hand cues when necessary, and he kept a close eye on the score. To be fair, these concerts are only the second time the Philharmonic has performed this piece, so everyone in the room was paying extra attention, including Boico. He had the task of being pressed into service as conductor for this piece at the last minute, and to a neophyte conductor like myself, that seems like a massive challenge. But what an opportunity! Boico performed admirably, managing the music and the soloists. Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps and Associate Principal Rebecca Young were equally impressive as the soloists (they also premiered this work with the Philharmonic in 1999, under Masur). Phelps took the higher part while Young explored the lower registers of the viola. The music became a conversation between the soloists and the rest of the orchestra, including solo turns from Carter Brey on cello, Michelle Kim on violin, and from the winds. It was a melancholic and mysterious piece, and well suited to the dusky tones of the violas. I really enjoyed it, and not just as a violist. I'll have to listen to the radio broadcast of this concert to hear it again.
After intermission, Masur returned to the podium for Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, another personal and audience favorite. Phelps and Young also returned to the stage, as the first stand in the viola section. I thought that was interesting; I'd expected them to have the rest of the night off since they had already performed as soloists. Masur took the tempi in the Brahms just a touch slower than other versions I've heard. Maybe the two were unrelated, but I thought that the slightly slower tempi enhanced the tension in the first movement and brought out some of the melodies and harmonies that might otherwise remain hidden. At the end of the work, the rousing finale brought most of the audience to its feet and Masur received another loud and extended ovation. The audiences in New York really love his work. I hope he keeps coming back here to conduct as long as he's able to do so.