Monday, October 27, 2014

Bartok and Bruckner with Bronfman and Gilbert

I love Anton Bruckner's symphonies and I rarely miss a chance to hear them played by the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic's stellar brass section is well-suited to Bruckner's sonorous chords and powerful blasts. But Bruckner's music is dense and complicated, with long phrases and meandering melodies. It's sometimes difficult even for an enthusiast like myself to fully enjoy a performance of one of his symphonies without checking my watch or thinking about what kind of gelato I'm going to get after the concert. If the musicians aren't fully involved, or the conductor is hesitant or unsure, the piece can be long and dull and have everyone looking for the exits well before the conclusion. Happily for me and a thrilled audience, Saturday night's concert was none of these things.

Before the Bruckner, the Philharmonic and soloist Yefim Bronfman gave a light and colorful performance of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto. I'm not that familiar with Bartok's music, but I enjoyed this concerto far more than I expected. Mr. Bronfman played with a sparkling quality that reminded me more of Beethoven than a 20th century work. But this playing fit well with the tone that Maestro Gilbert elicited from the orchestra. They brought Bartok's harmonies and angular melodies together with a fully satisfying result.

But that was just an appetizer. The performance of Bruckner's 8th Symphony (my favorite) was one of the most exciting and energetic experiences I've had with this music. Maestro Gilbert and the musicians had me hanging on every note. The brass section, augmented with four Wagner tubas, led the way and balanced well with the strings and winds. The first movement was menacing at times, the scherzo bright and almost cheerful. The third movement was an emotional ride from valley to peak and back. And the finale was every bit as terrifying as I wanted it to be. I felt chills when the music built to a crescendo and brass chords and timpani drumrolls filled the hall. I didn't want the piece to come to an end, even as Bruckner moved from darkness to light. This was a performance I don't want to forget.

P.S.: I had a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of hazelnut gelato at Grom after the concert.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Nielsen night at the Philharmonic

We attended the New York Philharmonic's performance of Carl Nielsen' Symphonies 5 and 6 last night, part of their multi-year Nielsen Project. Previous concerts featured his earlier symphonies and some of his concertos. They opened the concert with Nielsen' Maskarade Overture, which was a five minute overview of everything I love about Nielsen's music. It was frenetic and melodic, with loud boisterous blasts from the brass. 

Nielsen's Symphony No. 5 reminded me more of his 4th than of his other works. Like the 4th, the 5th had frantic string passages and long brassy melodies. But it also had persistent rattles from the snare drum, threatening to disrupt the proceedings more than once. Music Director Alan Gilbert spoke before the work and said that the music evoked a battle scene. While there was obvious conflict in the score, the musicians performed brilliantly in bringing Nielsen's music to life.

Nielsen's Symphony No.6 followed after intermission. This piece, in its New York Philharmonic premiere, was one of the more idiosyncratic symphonies I've heard. The opening movement was unmistakably Nielsen, but the composer took a turn into dissonance as the work progressed. The later movements had odd harmonies and twisting melodies from the wind section. The theme and variations in the last movement were the most unusual, as the theme journeyed through the instrument families, even taking a turn in the percussion section. There was a bit of disarray within the first violin section near the end of the piece, perhaps underscoring the Philharmonic's unfamiliarity with this particular work. But it was brief and for all I know part of the piece.

The orchestra and Maestro Gilbert enjoyed long ovations after both symphonies. It's clear that audiences love Nielsen's music and this orchestra is well suited to perform it. I've bought two of the planned four recordings in the Philharmonic's Nielsen cycle, and I look forward to picking up the last two when they are released.
Also, the Philharmonic handed out free "I [love] NIELSEN" buttons, and we were all too happy to wear ours.