Gilbert, Philharmonic warm winter’s chill with trio of Romantic works
Alan Gilbert opened Thursday’s concert at Avery Fisher Hall, the Philharmonic’s first subscription concert of 2015, with a brief and thoughtful tribute to the victims of Wednesday’s atrocity in Paris. Remarking that “It can be difficult as musicians to know how to respond,” he invoked Leonard Bernstein’s famous resolution to “make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” in response to the assassination of President Kennedy.
Respond the Philharmonic did—formidably, if not absolutely consistently. Opening with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, they showed off a much greater richness of sound, bright and romping in the first waltz, floating and blooming in the second. Even if a spark of wit seemed to be missing, the musicians’ grasp of Ravelian texture was gorgeous, creating colliding, cascading ripples in the music, culminating in an ethereal shimmer in the epilogue.
There was surprisingly little fanfare to announce the end of the Philharmonic’s multiple-season “Nielsen Project,” marked on Thursday by the performance of the Danish composer’s Clarinet Concerto. Gilbert mentioned the project only briefly in his opening remarks, a stage lecture by Philharmonic librarian Sandra Pearson introduced the piece (now standard practice for twentieth-century rep), and a CD-signing was slated for after the concert.
The real focus of attention was the soloist, Anthony McGill, the orchestra’s new principal clarinet. McGill has been with the Philharmonic since September, having left the same position with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra just a few steps away, but Thursday’s performance gave him an opportunity to make a proper first impression.
McGill’s playing was not technically immaculate Thursday, but it was marvelous nonetheless. He showed a whimsical, rhapsodic wit, and was able to paint in numerous hues, evoking both intimacy and distance. Nowhere was this more evident than in the cadenza, twisting and turning with airy but earnest sentiment.
The Philharmonic, despite their familiarity with and championing of Nielsen’s work, seemed less comfortable in the concerto. Leaving aside the messy accelerando that followed the cadenza, there was little sharpness, nor definition to their playing. Even the pizzicati near the end, somehow, seemed fuzzy.
Romantic standards aren’t always a sure bet with Gilbert on the podium, but his account of the beloved Swan Lake suite was rewarding, finding both the depth and the luxury of Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous music. The haunting main theme did not quite have its accustomed magic, the oboe solo coming through a little straight, but it was followed by lush, vibrant string playing. The waltz was irresistible, a warmly textured, twirling dance, living up to the potential of Tchaikovsky’s deliriously lovely, hyper-romantic writing.
Best of all was the White Swan’s “Pas d’action,” which offered solo opportunities to a host of Philharmonic musicians. Nancy Allen led off with an exquisite, glittering harp solo, and principal cellist Carter Brey presented rich velvet. Sheryl Staples, here as throughout the piece, gave warm, red-blooded violin playing.
Only the Czárdas really fell short, a poorly balanced, crashing mess at the start, and lifeless thereafter until the Hungarian dance. There was infinitely more character in the two dances that followed, the Danse espagnole, and the Danse russe, to which Staples brought a touch of gypsy flair. There’s little music better than this to warm the body and soul on a frigid January night; especially when the playing is so vibrant.
Thursday’s program will be repeated 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. nyphil.org