Conductor: Jaap van Zweden
Glass: King Lear Overture
Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Kelli O’Hara: Vocalist
Prokofiev: Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet
The opening piece of the opening concert of a new season is always an eagerly awaited moment, and this year, I was particularly excited to kick-start my 2019-2020 music season with the New York Philharmonic and – drum roll, please – the world première of Philip Glass’ King Lear Overture. As one might guessed, this NYP exclusive was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, and if the music gods are with us, we may, just may, get a full-length opera out of it someday. Hope springs eternal.
Granted, since the actual première took place on Wednesday, on Friday I would technically be attending the troisième, and the piece is only 10 minutes long. But after way too many weeks without indulging in live music, I could hardly afford to be fussy about timing. And I managed to secure more live Glass music sooner than later by stopping by at the Metropolitan Opera box office to buy a ticket to his upcoming Akhnaten, which lasts almost three and a half hours. So there.
As for the rest of the program, it was intriguing enough for Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 sung by Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, followed by a series of scenes from Sergei Prokofiev’s crowd-pleasing ballet score for Romeo and Juliet that had been reordered by New York Philharmonic music director and our maestro for the evening Jaap van Zweden.
On that last official day of summer, the weather was warm and the mood festive at the Lincoln Center, so much so in fact that I felt obligated to treat myself to yet another decadent ice cream from the strategically located L’Arte del Gelato cart. Just because I still could.
Glass’ King Lear Overture may be frustratingly short, but it quickly proved to be overflowing with so many promising ideas that seeing a complete opera in the near future does not seem so far-fetched indeed. Hitting the ground running with a resounding bang, the orchestra kept on going full speed in so many directions that it made your head spin. So much for minimalism! It almost felt as if the composer was trying once and for all to get rid of the enduring label he never liked. That said, the relentless creative one movement did wonder conveying the chaotic nature of the play, if not its underlying darkness (Too many colors). Not to mention that it could also proudly stand on its own.
After one prominent American composer presenting a work inspired by an English classic, we moved on to another prominent American composer presenting a work inspired by a prose poem by James Agee in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Nostalgically depicting a summer night in the Deep South through the voice of a child and an adult, the orchestral composition had an attractive dreamlike quality that made Kelli O’Hara’s crystal-clear and well-articulated singing all the more piercing. More blues and less vibrato would have been welcome, but as it was, the fleeting vignette about a leisurely summer evening in a Tennessean small town was a welcome diversion from our action-packed summer evening in New York City.
After intermission, The Bard was back, with his timeless heart-breaking love story smack in the spotlight this time. Slightly rearranged excerpts from Prokofiev’s two orchestral suites from his sumptuous Romeo and Juliet score reminded all of us that, although the innovative music was originally deemed “undanceable” by the classically trained Bolshoi dancers, it also features some intensely lyrical passages that would have made his fellow Russian master Tchaikovsky proud. Apparently ready, willing and able to sink their teeth into a meaty piece, the New York Philharmonic’s musicians threw themselves whole-heartedly into the task at hand all the way to a decidedly no-holds-barred “Death of Tybalt”, which concluded the concert with another resounding Shakespeare-inspired bang. What goes around comes around.