In direct competition with Major League Baseball's All Star Game, the New York Philharmonic took to the stage in the fields of Prospect Park last night (10 July 2007) for the first stop in their annual free summer concerts series; not only was there a big baseball game on television, but a storm seemed on the horizon, the perpetually gray skies posing a constant threat, so the amount of people that turned up was impressive, the crowds a fair deal larger than they were a month ago at the Metropolitan Opera's analogous free concert. It would seemingly indicate that either the Phil has a stronger marketing team or, more likely, that people just don't really like opera. (I guess that ought to be obvious. Opera? Unpopular?)
The scene in the park's baseball fields was very similar to that which I described in my piece about last month's performance of Faust in the same spot—well-off looking white people drinking wine and eating expensive crackers, sprawled out in the grass relaxedly. The Philharmonic, though, had noticeably given the field a more festive appearance, dressing it up with clusters of multicolored balloons while conspicuous speakers and tents stuck out above our heads. (And, uh, blocked the view. Not that we were close enough to see anything.) It looked like more of a festival than the setting the Met had mustered; there were even more kids, occasionally running by on their way to play, which I suspect was also a symptom of the fact that, particularly with the kids in tow, people just find opera boring.
The Philharmonic, under the baton of conductor Ludovic Morlot, opened with a gorgeous, mellifluously melodic Berlioz piece, "Le Corsaire Overture", which developed nicely; clocking in at only about seven minutes, it was short and sweet, the perfect aural appetizer to the upcoming Tchaikovsky entree. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto followed (accidentally I originally typed "Violent Concerto", an amusing Freudian slip); its first movement is impressively virtuosic but struck me as emotionally wanting—I found it akin to watching a mediocre film with a fantastic lead performance, and I have little interest in, or patience for, such star vehicles. (I don't mean, however, to disparage the astounding skill of soloist Stefan Jackiw.) Thankfully, as the piece moves along it becomes increasingly less showy and more effusive, concluding with a charming ebullience, and especially as it inspired a four year old girl next to my party to perform an impressive faux-ballet, I really can't complain.
The relaxed atmosphere of the parks concerts—and the permissibility of drinking Pinot Grigio (hiccup!)—make it a time to let loose and go crazy; I, for one, really letting my hair down, was violating the taboos of the concert hall left and right, coughing when I felt like it and even applauding between movements. After intermission, the Philharmonic performed the evening's anticipated highlight, Tchaikovsky's magnificent Sixth Symphony, known as the "Pathétique". It's an unusual symphony that is loud and quiet in unusual places; it ends, for example, uncharacteristically—particularly for the bombastic Tchaikovsky—on a whimper. The Brooklyn audience honored the entire forty-some odd minute performance and its soft passages with a respectfully solemn silence. (The unfortunate exception was one woman behind us, though I gathered, from her audible cell-phone conversation and grating accent, that she was from Staten Island—go figure.) There was no better atmopshere, the soft glow of early evening (moon, candle and lamppost light), for enjoying Tchaikovsky's gorgeous piece; even a handful of stars were coaxed out from behind the clouds to lighten up the hitherto ceaselessly gray and gloomy day. The predicted rains never arrived, obviously because even God loves Tchaikovsky.
Incidentally, I cannot understand the point of view of people who don't. While he can certainly be a bit ostentatious in his orchestration, his God-given melodic mastery is so lush and lovely; that Condoleeza Rice, a classically trained pianist in her less sinister life, has publicly professed to dislike the music of Pyotr Ilyich—and that George W. Bush prolly never heard-a 'im—is just one of the many symbolical indicators of what's gone wrong with this country. An anti-Tchaikovsky contingent has infiltrated the highest levels of government! And obviously endless war cannot be far behind.
After the music was a generous fireworks display, perhaps a bit too soon after the Fourth of July to truly dazzle, although our proximity to the event beat watching the Macy's fireworks from miles away on the rooftop of my Southwest-Brooklyn apartment. (They were the size of dimes softly fading in the distance.) The crowd was impressed, and was markedly quieter than they had been during even the musical performance, save for the ooohs and ahhhs. It seems the classical music community of New York has finally found something that the general public can really respond to.