Thursday, July 24, 2008

Finlandia Through Computer Speakers


In my experience, the New York Philharmonic’s incoming musical director, Alan Gilbert, likes to sucker audiences into modernist compositions by sandwiching them into classical programs. But he played the populist at Monday [7.14.08] evening’s populism extravaganza, The Concert in the Park, when uptown elitism is packed into trucks and driven down to Brooklyn for the night. Like Fantasia, the evening began with a piece by popular favorite J.S. Bach.

If you’ve heard one Bach piece, have you heard them all? Maybe not exactly, but his “Concerto for Two Violins in D Major” offered no surprises, though it did provide a relaxing soundtrack, a lovely complement to the encroaching twilight and the orange-streaked sunset sky.

Gilbert compensated for the banal Bach, centerpiecing the evening’s bill with Beethoven’s Fourth. (I’d say it’s one of my favorites, but Beethoven symphonies are like Hitchcock movies: they’re all really good, even the not-so-good ones.) The first movement really danced, as did the fourth, living up to Berlioz’s description of the symphony as “lively, alert and gay.” Last November, I credited conductor Xian Zhang teasing out the terpsichorean rhythms of Beethoven’s Seventh, but now I think it’s simply one of the orchestra’s general talents.

Unfortunately, the guttural throbbings that transition the first movement’s adagio to the allegro vivace were lost as they trickled out of the amplifying sound system. As usual, the park setting juggled its pros and cons—free admission, alcohol and fresh air vs. frat boy chatter, intra-movement applause and thin sound. (Not that, from what I understand, Avery Fisher is an acoustician’s dream.) Though the loose setting made me imagine that this must be what classical music performance attendance is like in China, at least judging from Alex Ross’ recent description.

The intermissionless (don’t they know everyone’s drinking?) evening ended with Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” a piece nightmarish at its start but regal at its conclusion. The Phil played exceptionally, even though it sounded like they were playing through computer speakers.

Like Reel 13’s Saturday night short, the orchestra’s encore was chosen by popular vote; the people chose the “Overture” to Carmen, which Gilbert sped through faster than even the Leonard Bernstein recording. The moment it ended, a fireworks display began, its bangs echoing through Flatbush like gunshots. As gorgeous as it was (better than Macy’s’ two weeks ago), it felt diversionary. A long, steady stream of automobiles, presumably carrying the orchestra, sped away as the people craned their necks towards the lights show. They seemed not to be able to get out of Brooklyn fast enough.