Friday, September 25, 2009

New York Philharmonic - Brahms & Schoenberg - 09/24/09

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Brahms: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 - Frank Peter Zimmermann
Schoenberg: Pelleas and Melisande (After the Drama by Maurice Maeterlinck): Symphonic Poem for Orchestra, Op. 5

Now that summer is basically over, things are finally picking up on the musical front. To officially start my New York performance season with a fully loaded bang, I'm taking my visiting mum to the Big Apple for a couple of days, combining purely touristy fun such as a long-delayed boat ride and a much anticipated walk on the recently opened High Line with more high-brow fare such as a concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by their newly appointed music director Alan Gilbert. I was not familiar with the second piece on the program, Schoenberg's Pelleas and Melisande, but I figured that this outing would be the perfect opportunity to add it to my musical experience while enjoying Brahms' lusciously romantic violin concert played by no less than much celebrated German violinist (and Alan Gilbert's good friend) Frank Peter Zimmermann.

One of Brahms' most popular works, his violin concerto rarely fails to attract and please the crowds. I've probably heard it live more than any other classical music score, and the magic had thoroughly operated every single time. Yesterday though, things turned out a bit different and took some unforeseen adjusting on my part. As I was sitting there fully expecting to be quickly and decisively swept away, I quickly realized that the conductor and violinist had something else in mind: they were clearly aiming at keeping it lean and clean, as far as they could possibly get from any heart-on-their-sleeves flash or élan. Some sweeping away did take place, but it was definitely understated, steadily minimalist sweeping, which yielded a new and distinctive take on the piece. Therefore, I initially had to work at getting to it instead of just letting it get to me, and I have to say that the experience turned out to be quite rewarding. Conductor and soloist were precisely in sync and the orchestra brilliantly backed them up, so after a few unsettled minutes, the connection did happen.
The audience gave it a long and enthusiastic ovation, which got us rewarded with a encore from Zimmermann, who quickly shifted gears and mood for a short and delicious treat by Bach.
For the second part of the program, Alan Gilbert had the judicious idea of introducing Pelleas and Melisande instead of jumping right into it, which was immensely helpful to the ignoramus among us. His explanations and demonstrations of the various motives and plot twists of the story indeed made it much easier to appreciate Schoenberg's late romantic tone poem beyond its lavishly beautiful music. The original play by Maeterlinck became popular as soon as it came out in 1893, with Debussy, Fauré and Sibelius all taking stabs at it in various formats over a short period of time. But Schoenberg's version stands out as a purely musical composition of symphonic dimensions, an uninterrupted 45-minute voluptuous ride into the ill-fated lives of the three protagonists. Now I was getting my big, no-holds-barred sweeping élans! And the resoundingly tragic ending positively concluded this first experience with the Gilbert-era New York Philharmonic on a satisfied and promising note.

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