Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Lindberg: Arena for Orchestra
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47 - Lisa Batiashvili
Brahms: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Last weekend, it was my New York Philharmonic season that came to an end with one of classical music's highest peaks and a personal favorite: Sibelius' dazzling violin concerto. Georgia-born Lisa Batiashvili has had a long history with that piece, all the way back to the Sibelius competition in which she won second prize at the tender age of 16, the competition's youngest performer ever. Sounded promising. Moreover, it sure looked like cool Finland was the guest of honor on that hot Saturday evening with also Arena for Orchestra by The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg to open the concert. Not be be outdone, Germany was represented by one of its most beloved Romantic masterpieces: Brahms' radiant symphony No 2 (Personally, I prefer the fourth, but needless to say nobody asked me, and let's face it life could be worse).
Arena started with an under-stated, urgent feel and quickly exploded in an endless festival of complex and intriguing sounds and textures. You could never tell what was going to happen next, but Alan Gilbert, who has conducted the unsettling work a number of times, made sure to keep everything under control. Under his informed baton, the orchestra displayed an impressive unity while facing the kaleidoscopic challenge and masterfully brought it all home.
Sibelius' violin concerto is another fiendishly difficult work, and as much as I enjoy listening to it, I can't help but feel sorry for the poor soloist who has to actually work it. Lisa Batiashvili, however, was obviously not intimidated and brilliantly conveyed the dramatic fire and ice dichotomy of the music, from the slow, atmospheric opening to its folksy, energy-filled ending. She demonstrated plenty of technical savvy in the famously treacherous cadenza and readily went on to a thoughtful, emotionally charged Adagio. It was actually quite impressive to see how such a discreet presence could deliver such an all-around knock-out performance, but she did it with flair and grace. While the virtuosic tour de force was happening, the orchestra was respectfully staying in the background, providing all requested support with unflinching commitment, and it all came together beautifully.
Brahms may have only written four symphonies, but each is a unique world to explore and enjoy. Directly inspired by the serene beauty of Pörtschach, in the Austrian countryside, where the composer was vacationing at the time, his second symphony can easily find itself compared to Beethoven's Pastoral and it is easy to see why, with its vivid evocations of the joys of nature and all, but it is also clear that classical music's other grumpy master was starting to find his own voice and revel in it. Happy and relaxed, the score takes the listener on a unhurried journey into a bucolic landscape and concludes the experience with an upbeat, faster finale. Alan Gilbert and the orchestra played it straight, and that was a very fine ending to my New York Philharmonic subscription indeed.
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