Gersen plays it straight with Philharmonic’s American program

Sat Feb 24, 2018 at 1:28 pm
Joshua Gersen conducted the New York Philharmonic Friday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Joshua Gersen conducted the New York Philharmonic Friday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

A year ago, the New York Philharmonic let Joshua Gersen drive the car. This weekend, they’re giving him the keys.

Gersen, who has been the orchestra’s assistant conductir since September 2015, made an unscheduled subscription debut in February 2017, substituting for an indisposed Semyon Bychkov in, among other things, an inspired performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.”

One wondered at the time what this conductor and orchestra might achieve under more normal circumstances, with a date certain and time to prepare. Thursday and Friday nights, audiences got their answer, as Gersen skillfully led a post-President’s-Day program of American favorites. (One more performance is scheduled for Saturday night.)

With Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Copland’s Third Symphony (which incorporates his Fanfare for the Common Man) on the bill, the program lacked only Rhapsody in Blue to complete the mid-century classical Hall of Fame.

A young conductor looking to make his mark might be tempted to tweak these familiar items in some idiosyncratic way, but in Friday’s performance Gersen took a straightforward approach, aiming for, and in most cases delivering, the fullest expression of each piece’s inherent character.

But what is the character of Barber’s enigmatic Adagio? Long associated with grief and yet, to some listeners, also intensely erotic, this iconic piece responds to both hot and cool interpretations. Gersen’s was on the latter side, its long lines and steady tread bringing thoughts of Gregorian chant and Elizabethan viol consorts–an impression marred somewhat by too much vibrato, which made the string tone stutter, but evocative nonetheless.

One imagines this band could play Bernstein’s West Side Story dances without any conductor at all, but every team needs a cheerleader, and Gersen urged the tight ensemble to a maximum-impact performance, especially in explosive numbers such as “Mambo” and “Rumble.” (One noticed that the players’ shout of “Mambo!” has a distinctly different timbre now than in the days of mostly-male orchestras.)

More refined pleasures, such as the dainty flutes of “Cha-Cha” and the suite’s quietly yearning closing pages, were not neglected. In the “Prologue” and elsewhere, a little more swing was in order, but Gersen’s efficient podium manner didn’t allow for much Bersteinian hip action.

One doesn’t know if hip action or something else is the answer for Copland’s Third Symphony, but this rather self-important piece always seems to need something to get it off square one. By the composer’s own account, after the popular success of his ballets and the Fanfare, his friends urged him to write something large for orchestra; a commission for just that came from conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and then he spent two years thinking of something to say.

Copland obligingly wrote a long program note and other accounts of the piece, mostly describing what it was not—not program music, not autobiographical, not modeled on Mahler or Shostakovich, not twelve-tone or Romantic or neoclassical or any other “ism” of the time.

Tchaikovsky was annoyed when critics said his symphonies sounded like his ballets, but hearing Copland’s Third, it’s hard not to think of Rodeo and Appalachian Spring—on steroids. There are long stretches where the composer seems not to have any goal but to sound Coplandesque. The arrival in the finale of the Fanfare, a hard gem of musical power and expression, makes the symphonic heaving of the previous half hour pale by comparison.

Gersen’s commitment to the piece was evident—he conducted it from memory—and he kept the music from getting too ponderous in the first movement by pushing a bit on the indicated Molto moderato tempo. He also made the most of the piece’s sudden contrasts, as  a massive tutti gave way to, say, a lonely-sounding passage for just a flute and a horn.

Whether by direct influence or not, the scherzo was distinctly Shostakovichian in its fleetness and bite, though less tinged with bitterness than the Russian’s scherzos. (In a rare moment of saying something descriptive about the symphony, Copland allowed as how it “was intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at that time,” i.e., 1944, with the war nearing its end.)

The third movement, a series of connected episodes, opened with slow string counterpoint somewhat à la Barber and proceeded through a series of well-delivered dramatic gestures. Copland then slyly slipped the Fanfare theme in with just a solo flute and bassoon (and harp!) before quoting the original brass-and-percussion version in full to start the last movement.

Although the overall mood of the finale was rather conventionally exultant, Copland made things interesting by weaving bits of the Fanfare through the orchestral texture, varying the orchestration from lush to transparent, and offering more of those sudden contrasts between blazing tutti and more intimate moments. Gersen kept all these details in view as he moved the Allegro risoluto smartly along to its grandiose finish.

Now that we’ve seen what Gersen can do with the standards, it would be nice to hear him take a Philharmonic audience in some less familiar directions. But his tenure as assistant conductor is in its third and presumably final year, so all one can do is wish him well in future endeavors, and hope incoming music director Jaap van Zweden makes room on the schedule for the Philharmonic’s next assistant to show the subscribers what he can do.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 212-875-5656.

2 Responses to “Gersen plays it straight with Philharmonic’s American program”

  1. Posted Feb 24, 2018 at 6:42 pm by Jerry McCathern

    I generally agree with this review especially your comments about “hip” movement or lack thereof. Gersen’s command of these 3 American masterpieces was impressive. He conducted the entire concert from memory and the orchestra played beautifully as usual. But this young man is too stiff on the podium. How can you conduct Mambos and Rumbas without moving just a little? And from my vantage point he displayed no facial expressions to his players. Why the stone face Joshua? You’re conducting the greatest orchestra in the world and you can’t muster a smile?

  2. Posted Feb 26, 2018 at 11:25 am by Matt

    I attended the Friday evening showing and was incredibly impressed with Mr. Gersen’s work. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself from my angle. I am excited to see where he ends up after his tenure with the Phillharmonic concludes.

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