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Philharmonic opens with gala tribute to Italian movies, heavy on the sauce

September 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm
Josh Groban, Renee Fleming and Joshua Bell joined Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic for Tuesday night's gala tribute to Italian film. Photo: Chris Lee

Josh Groban, Renée Fleming and Joshua Bell joined Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic for Tuesday night’s gala tribute to Italian film. Photo: Chris Lee

Pops concerts have always been divisive—their supporters insist that they are important moneymakers for major orchestras and that they can help to attract new audiences who would not buy tickets to concerts of the Romantic warhorses. Others have a hard time believing that the same crowd that shows up for a Star Wars medley will turn out for Bruckner.

But however you feel about “crowd-pleasing” programs, when a major orchestra like the New York Philharmonic opens its season with one, it sends a particular message. To be sure, the Opening Night Gala is not traditionally the most “serious” concert of the season. Colorful stage lights and bunting are de rigueur, and the program is usually kept on the brief side to make sure that the post-concert sponsors’ dinner is served on a reasonable Mediterranean schedule.

But even allowing for collective lowered brows for one evening, the very fact that Opening Night leads off the season means it must be in some way representative of the values and standards of the organization. A year ago, music director Alan Gilbert made a new cello concerto by Osvaldo Golijov the center of his Opening Night program, doubling down on his stated goal of making the Phil a leading presenter of contemporary work. The piece was met with an extended standing ovation. On Tuesday, Gilbert joined forces with the flashy violinist Joshua Bell, the ultra-glamorous soprano Renée Fleming, and the heart-throb pop singer Josh Groban for a hit parade of Italian movie music with an introduction by Martin Scorsese.

It’s astonishing, really, that the same conductor who has affirmed time and again his commitment to high artistic standards and compelling new music—and who just three months ago created the first-ever “NY Phil Biennial,” a festival of contemporary works and new commissions—would turn around and open his orchestra’s season with a program that feels so far off message.

Scorsese’s personal and eloquent introduction, in which he spoke with awe of Italy’s cultural legacy, was one of the evening’s high points (as was Philharmonic board member Alec Baldwin’s reverent and witty introduction of Scorsese himself). The program that followed, unfortunately, did not live up to those sentiments either in concept or in execution.

That Groban did not seem out of place said more about the concert than it did about his singing. In his solo number, “Non Penso a Te” from Ennio Morricone’s score to Incontro (1971), his voice was stretched to his limits. His Italian, unsurprisingly, left much to be desired, and his tone, fraying at the edges and never filling out, seemed taxed by the repertoire.

But then, so did Fleming’s. A mainstay of gala events the world over, she is no stranger to pops rep, but on Tuesday she sounded overmatched. Notes in her chest were growled, and her high voice was stretched almost to the point of breaking. It was not clear who was at fault when she and Groban struggled to match pitch in their two ensemble numbers, but when she sang alone in “Your Love” from Morricone’s score to Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), her vibrato wobbled.

Bell was the steadiest of the marquee names, bringing his trademark liquid-silver tone and sentimental smarm to everything he touched. Cipriani’s wandering, dancing suite from The Anonymous Venetian (1970), his solo act, was particularly suave. It was not clear whether Bell was amplified, but his colleagues sang into hand-held microphones.

Where the Philharmonic played on their own, they did mostly admirable work. The William Tell overture dragged on before finally getting to the gallop, but the Barber of Seville overture, which opened the evening, was sprightly, lovely, and winning. Nino Rota’s “Valzer del Commiato” from The Leopard (1963) was a sweetly played and wistfully spun waltz.

All of this was supplemented with video, occasionally pulled from the source films, but mostly constructed anew by Giuseppe Ragazzini. His collage-style animations of Italian scenes were attractive, though mostly inscrutable. The accompaniment to the evening’s final act, Luis Bacalov’s “Mi Mancherai” from Il Postino (1994), ultimately morphed into a bizarre chorus line, seeming like an elaborate Terry Gilliam prank.

Tuesday’s concert was billed as part of the Phil’s ongoing “Art of the Score” series, but it came nowhere near the musical integrity of last year’s concert performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and what possessed Gilbert to make this his gala program is a mystery. One has to assume that Groban was brought in to attract a younger “element,” but, if anything, the Avery Fisher audience looked even more wizened than a normal subscription crowd. A 180-degree turn from last year’s adventurous opener, this was a disappointing start to what looks to be a promising season. Let’s hope that Mahler’s “Titan” next week gets the Philharmonic on the right track.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.


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