Sunday, June 17, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Beethoven, Korngold & Nielsen - 06/14/12

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Beethoven: Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62
Korngold: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35 – Leonidas Kavakos
Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia espansiva” – Erin Morley – Joshua Hopkins

One of the major advantages of living in New York City is that even when the regular cultural season is winding down, performances still spring up here and there. That’s how on Saturday, June 2, I found myself in the beautiful Congregation Beth Elohim Temple of Park Slope for a concert by the Brooklyn Community Chorus, which heartily performed a large variety of works, from an immediately engaging “Be not Afraid” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, which made me feel sorry they were not playing the whole piece, to… an admittedly catchy spoof of The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”, which still made me feel grateful that it was a short song.
Last Sunday, June 10, I was literally much closer to home with a concert by the Sweet Plantain String Quartet, which delighted a much appreciative local crowd in the West Side Community Garden. The classically trained, effortlessly virtuosic musicians did not let any unruly kid, frisky dog, chirping bird, passing plane, honking car, or even the sing songy ice cream truck, prevent them from delivering a winning performance that expertly fused latin, jazz, blues and classical sounds. Their infectious rap version of Vivaldi’s concerto for two cellos, played in this case with viola and trombone, perfectly summarized their iconoclastic approach to music and was the big hit of the evening.
On Thursday night I was back on even more familiar ground with a concert by the New York Philharmonic and Leonidas Kavakos. While I am not a dedicated follower of the orchestra, a state of things that has much more to do with their home than their musicianship, I can’t imagine not grabbing a chance of hearing Leonidas Kavakos playing… whatever it is that he is playing. I had never heard Korngold’s violin concerto before, but if I was meant to become acquainted with it, it might as well in his brilliant company. Although I do like Beethoven’s Coriolan and was clueless about the “Sinfonia espansiva”, they were pretty much after-thoughts in this case.

Beethoven’s overture to Coriolan is a grand-scale opening number under any circumstances, and Alan Gilbert wasted no time leading his orchestra into a gripping interpretation of it. Things were off to a good start.
After much suspense due to a conscious decision not to check it out before hearing it live on Thursday, Korngold’s violin concerto turned out to be an unabashedly attractive piece, overflowing with pretty lyrical melodies to make the audience swoon and treacherous intricate passages to make them gasp. First a child prodigy at the piano, Erich Korngold later became a busy composer of popular Hollywood movie scores, an influence that can be easily detected in his theme-driven, drama-filled violin concerto. Unhesitatingly rising up to the occasion, Leonidas Kavakos not only handled the numerous technical challenges with deftness and precision, but he also made sure to let the intrinsic expressiveness of the piece come through as well. His well-calibrated balance may have deprived us of a few take-no-prisoners sweeping moments in the best Romantic tradition, but this was nevertheless a totally thrilling experience.
Speaking of “sweeping moments”, we sure got our fill of those in the last item on the program, Nielsen’s Symphony No 3. Not unlike his fellow Scandinavian Sibelius, Nielsen wrote here an expansive, beautifully contrasted and viscerally appealing journey that conveys a wide range of moods and images. It is not hard to believe that Alan Gilbert is a die-hard supporter of the unfairly little-known composer once you’ve heard him conduct his orchestra in a decidedly heart-felt, borderline exuberant performance of it, with special kudos for the brass section, who played with steady aplomb and gusto. Not to be outdone by all the pulsing intensity of the first movement, Erin Morley and Joshua Hopkins suddenly stood up among the musicians and gorgeously sang a vocalise as pure as the driving snow, adding an exquisite human touch to the heavenly tranquility of the second movement. And what was originally the mysterious wild card of the program became the wonderful surprise of the evening. More Nielsen, please maestro!

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