Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Phil Mixes Modernism with Romance

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Date of Performance: November 10, 2007

The New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Xian Zhang, began their Saturday evening performance with the New York premiere of two selections from Huang Ruo's Three Pieces for Orchestra, the "Fanfare" and "Announcement". They are both dissonant, percussive and violent pieces of music that the Phil attacked with ferocious gusto; they never sounded anything less than apocalyptic.

Blending Chinese-flavored melodies with a Stravinksy-esque audacity, the dyad ended with a haunting quiet, at least before a gong roll sent the half of the orchestra not wearing ear plugs reaching to cover their ears in advance. When the pieces were done, Huang Ruo came out from the wings to modest and appreciative applause.

With that nod to new music and living composers out of the way, the Philharmonic followed that blazing piece of modernism with two blaringly romantic symphonies, starting with Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole (Op. 21), a madly passionate piece of music met in feeling by the violinist Vadim Repin, who brought a physical intensity to the music as he moved back and forth within his personal square of performance space.

Though called a "symphony", Symphonie Espagnole is, for all intents and purposes, a violin concerto. I admit that, often times, my ears get exhausted during concerti; as I wrote in my last review of the Philharmonic, in reference to Johannes Moser's playing of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, "how much consecutive cello can the ordinary ear register?"

I don't know if it was the piece or the performance, but Symphonie Espagnole was captivating; orchestra and soloist were in perfect cooperation, neither outshining the other; they were in perfect balance. The virtuosic solo lines eschewed overreaching into the garish flash that concerti are often characterized by, and served as the wonderful icing on what would have been an otherwise delicious orchestral cake. The audience seemed to agree; Repin got an enthusiastic ovation and several curtain calls.

With a Sevillian strain in the music—Symphonie Espagnole initially premiered right around the time that Bizet's Carmen did—the pre-intermission half of the evening was particularly ethnic.

But that all ended as the evening's performance concluded with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (Op. 92). (You could say the symphony is ethnic in its pulsing rhythms, but it'd be a stretch.) Honestly, is there any greater piece of music? Well, possibly, but it was damned near impossible to try and think of one during the Philharmonic's stellar performance. Zhang really brought out the symphony's terpsichorean qualities, matching them with her gyrating conducting performance that found her moving from one side of her rostrum to the other. (Her enthusiasm was a match for the one I often exhibit in the air-conducting privacy of my bedroom.) As the Phil tore through the piece (taking the time, of course, to ache out the superlative second movement, certainly the most gorgeous piece of music ever penned), I finally understood Daniel J. Levitin's op-ed in the Times a month ago calling for dance floors in the concert halls; from the Fourth Tier boxes, I spied several concertgoers tapping their hands and feet to the beat.

To top it all off, during the third movement I spontaneously smiled, and I can't think of the last time a performance or piece of music made me do that.

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