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Overnight

“New World” opens Philharmonic season with a New York state of mind

Fri Sep 23, 2016 at 1:33 pm
Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

There are pieces that certain orchestras just seem to own outright.  When, for example, you hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, you’re reminded that that orchestra commissioned the work in 1945 and has had an inside track on it ever since.

Thursday night in David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic made much—through lobby exhibits, sidebars in the program, etc.– of its long association with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” dating back to the piece’s premiere, led by Anton Seidl in Carnegie Hall in 1893. 

But the proof is in the playing, and Thursday’s performance under music director Alan Gilbert made it clear that 123 years and over 300 performances of this hugely popular symphony haven’t dulled the orchestra’s edge. 

Concluding the first subscription concert of the 2016-17 season, this vigorous and well-knit rendering drew the ear not just to the symphony’s memorable tunes, but to countless felicities of scoring, from shifting colors of string-wind dialogue in the first movement to the subtle support of clarinets and bassoon in the Largo’s famous English-horn theme.

Gilbert and his players tore into the first movement’s Allegro molto with vitality and swing, though the performance tended to lose steam in the softer interludes.  The balanced, juicy tutti sound seemed to come from generations of getting this music in the orchestra’s ear.

But it was in the Largo that the phrase “owns this piece” went into the notebook.  Everything about this rapt performance seemed gauged and timed just right, from the broad arc of Grace Shryock’s English horn solo to the Wagnerian manner in which a gleaming woodwind chorale over pizzicato double bass evanesced into a cloud of super-pianissimo string sound.

Were it not for the symphony’s nickname—something of an afterthought on the composer’s part—the Scherzo would likely come across as simply a medley of Slavonic dances.  Gilbert and the orchestra, exercising a touch of owner’s privilege, gave it a brash but balanced New York sound, with plenty of lift in the outer sections but more needed in the woodwind-led trio.

That New York state of mind seemed to drive the finale theme’s blatant fortissimo as well, although the honking horns in the ensuing episode sounded more like “American in Paris” than “New World.”  No matter—the well-oiled vigor of this performance swept all before it, leaving the probing of shadows in the score for another time.

Lisa Batiashivili Photo: Chris Lee

Lisa Batiashivili Photo: Chris Lee

This concise opening program of the season included just one other work, Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Violin Concerto, sounding a little brown around the edges in a cool, efficient performance by soloist Lisa Batiashvili.

The violinist’s tone was clear and vibrant, especially in folk-dance tunes down on the G string, and she took extra time in all the right places, but her accomplished playing didn’t convey much of the tender sentiment and intimacy of this fundamentally lyrical piece.

For his part, Gilbert suppressed the orchestra almost to inaudibility while the soloist was playing, then pounced with audible gratitude on the loud tutti episodes.  Hunched and back on his heels during the solos, the conductor had the air less of a musical partner than of a ranch hand eyeing a skittish filly.

As a result, the one-against-all dynamic that makes concertos exciting and drives the soloist to ever-greater heights was missing for much of the piece. In the dazzling finale, however, cool and poised execution became a virtue instead of a vice, and as long as the music stayed up-tempo—especially in the all-stops-out coda—Batiashvili wowed the audience with her dexterity, deft phrasing, and aplomb.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Friday and  8 p.m. Saturday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.

David Wright comes to New York Classical Review from its sister site, Boston Classical Review, for which he reviewed about 50 concerts a year.  He has been a program annotator for Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series and Mostly Mozart Festival since 1982. He was the program editor and annotator of the New York Philharmonic from 1993 to 1995 (ASCAP Deems Taylor Award). Other program-note clients have included Carnegie Hall, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, San Francisco Opera, and the 92nd Street Y, to name a few. 

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