Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens - David Chan
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" - Yefim Bronfman
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1945 version)
Because there's always some action unfolding right in our faces from the Metropolitan Opera's stage, it is very easy to overlook the remarkable music machine that makes it all possible right in the orchestra pit. Luckily, The MET Orchestra occasionally performs sans distracting visuals in concert halls, just like they did on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall with special guest Yefim Bronfman for Beethoven's glorious Emperor concert. As if this was not enough excitement for one concert, the other two pieces came straight from two uncompromising Russian iconoclasts: Igor Stravinsky and the 1945 version of his Firebird Suite as well as Sofia Gubaidulina and her In tempus praesens.
A violin concerto without being a bona fide violin concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina's In tempus praesens was the unknown component of the program and turned out to be, err, different, but eventually worth-hanging in there for. Dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter in honor of their almost identical names and the fact that "Sophia" means "Wisdom", the work's main character is the soloist's violin, the one and only violin in the whole composition, which itself requires a wide array of instruments, including a piano and two harps. From the very start, it was wisdom against the world, the soloist again the orchestra, as the one intensely lyrical voice continued imperturbably pressing forward, trying to ignore all the various obstacles, even the big bad loud ones, thrown at it. As a result, while the unstoppable violin churned out some beautiful melodic lines, the short, unpredictable outbursts from the orchestra kept the work from taking off and soar, keeping their fundamental opposition alive until the very end. Comfortably led by their most frequent conductor Fabio Luisi, David Chan, the orchestra's concertmaster, and his fellow musicians played with plenty of poise and deftness, eventually turning this difficult challenge into an accessible, if not quite irresistible, half hour of musical experimentation.
After Gubaidulina's jarring sounds, it was with particular glee that we welcome the much more traditional concerto that is Beethoven's Emperor. Perfectly in tune with the orchestra, popular piano virtuoso Yefim Bronfman delivered an unquestionably grand but still deeply human performance of it, happily lashing out splashes of fierce momentum and discreetly underlying the more introspective moments. A refreshingly straightforward Emperor, played with a lot of heart.
Inspired by a Russian folk tale and composed for the ballet version of it, Stravinsky's Firebird is an immediately engaging and totally fun score. Some passages owe a lot to Rimsky-Korsakov - Stravinsky's former teacher - and Tchaikovsky in their unabashedly sweeping melodies, but a careful or even not so careful listener can also easily detect some atypical musical ideas getting ready to powerfully explode in a not so distant future. This delightful work, however, does not need any excuse to proudly stand on its own in Stravinsky's oeuvre, and the MET's orchestra brightly colored performance of it on Sunday only seconded that statement.