Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Rouse: Prospero's Rooms
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato's Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion - Joshua Bell
Ives: Symphony No 4
Second Conductor: Case Scaglione
Second Piano: Eric Huebner
Representatives of the New York Choral Consortium
Right in the middle of my "mini-residency" at Carnegie Hall this week, I took the liberty to make a small detour by the Avery Fisher Hall last night, where the New York Philharmonic and Joshua Bell were scheduled to perform an all-American program that included the world premiere of Rouse's Prospero's Rooms, which by default I was not familiar with, Bernstein's Serenade, which is not a violin concerto pretty much only by name, and Ives' Symphony No 4, which apparently was going to be an, err, interesting experience.
Edgar Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death" is about a prince who locks himself and all his friends in his palace to escape the Red Death, only to see it appear during the ball and promptly decimate the whole crowd. Rouse's musical version of it is efficiently condensed so that the action moves swiftly and colorfully during a 10-minute span. And it sure did.
In view of the score he brought on the stage, one can safely assume that Joshua Bell does not perform Bernstein's Serenade as often as the other classics of the Romantic violin repertoire he is rightfully famous for. That, however, did not prevent him from delivering a winning performance of it, all riveting intensity during the challenging passages and glowing lyricism in the more introspective moments. Unsurprisingly, the quietly luminous Agathon imposed itself as the highlight of the whole piece - I would even say of the whole evening - although the delicate yet assertive opening fugato came an extremely close second. The five separate movements, all inspired by different statements about love made during a banquet in the best ancient Greek tradition, received a uniformly committed treatment from conductor and orchestra, who all seemed to be having quite a bit of fun with it.
If the last movement of the Serenade was definitely on the happily rambunctious side, it still sounded downright understated when compared to the schizophrenic cacophony that followed. When from the get-go you see two conductors appear onstage in order to handle a full orchestra, a large chorus and a handful of musicians on a balcony, you quickly figure that it might get loud. And the fact is, not only did it get loud, but it often sounded like an intentional good old mess as well. Although Alan Gilbert and, when needed, Case Scaglione, looked like they had everything under control, Ives' Symphony No 4 is clearly not for the traditionally minded or the faint of heart. It would be unfair, however, not to mention a few thoroughly appealing string-driven moments resolutely rising above the densely textured musical fray. The numerous rumored hints to American culture totally escaped me and there were very few straightforward melodies to hang on to, so I mostly let it all wash over me until the very last note rang, which by then was not a minute too soon.