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Music Review: The New York Philharmonic

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The Tchaikovsky Festival Comes To A Memorable Close

Music Review:  The New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic recently concluded a three week festival celebrating the great Russian composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  The composer actually has a very direct link to the Philharmonic.  In 1891 he conducted the very first concert at Carnegie Hall which for decades was home to the orchestra.  

The performance that I attended (2/10/17)  was to have been led by the esteemed Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov.  He had fallen ill the previous day and the concert was literally left in the very capable hands of the assistant conductor of the Philharmonic, Joshua Gersen.  

The concert began with the sprawling Tchaikovsky tone poem Francesca da Rimini which the composer wrote shortly after visiting Bayreuth in 1876 to attend the first production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  (Based on the dispatches that Tchaikovsky wrote after attending the performances,  he apparently did not fall completely under the spell of the Magician of Bayreuth’s epic).    According to an interview that Maestro Gersen recently gave to the New York Times,  he first conducted  the Francesca tone poem the previous evening.  Despite the newness of the score, he ably controlled  the vast musical architecture of the roughly thirty minute composition.   (The scheduled Oresteia Overture by Sergei Taneyev was omitted.  It would have been nice to have heard the piece but the concert felt full without it.) 

The second half of the program consisted of one of the great masterpieces of symphonic literature, Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique).    Except for the third movement,  much of the music has a sadly valedictory air.   Since Tchaikovksy died shortly after the premiere of the composition, it would be convenient to read into the music some sort of premonition of an impending tragedy.  To this day Tchaikovsky's death in 1893 is enshrouded in a certain amount of mystery.    If the last movement of the symphony is anywhere near representative of Tchaikovsky's mental state at the close of his life,  I fear he did not die a  happy man.  Which is a pity considering the enormous musical gifts he gave the world.  

A prime example of those musical gifts is the especially brilliant third movement of the Sixth which breaks with the melancholy tone of much of the rest of the work.   Ingeniously constructed,  the movement seems to propel itself forward of its own momentum from the beginning to the last spectacular, heroic note.  It is almost impossible not to be emotionally swept away by its jubilant, heroic tones.  As Shakespeare wrote about Cassius,  I would be distrustful of anyone who claimed to be impervious to its brilliant power.  (In the lexicon of the current culture, the music sounds like John Williams on steroids, and the late Romantics were almost certainly an influence on some of Williams’ best known film works – which is fine.) The audience refused to remain immobile in the face of the enormous energy of the movement and broke protocol in a burst of well deserved,  enthusiastic applause. 

The mournful tone returns in the last movement of the symphony.  After a passage reminiscent  of a funeral dirge,  the music simply peters out into silence.  Like death itself.  Tchaikovsky died nine days after he conducted the premiere of the symphony in St. Petersburg.  

My impression of Maestro Gersen is that he eschews pyrotechnical movements but leads with finely proportioned, direct gestures.  He does not give a visual performance for the audience but concentrates on leading the forces in front of him.  That is also fine - the music is exciting enough.  His conducting of the orchestra was warmly acknowledged by the audience.   His performance was all the more impressive as he apparently had very little rehearsal. 

Beginning tonight, the Philharmonic will begin four performances through February 18 of Gustav Mahler's First Symphony.  Mahler also had a direct relationship with the orchestra.  He was its music director from 1909-1911.  Mahler's First Symphony is obviously a great work in and of itself and also functions as a wonderful curtain raiser for all of the other powerful symphonies which were to flow from the composer's pen.  The work is paired with Beethoven's First Piano Concerto.  Inon Barnatan is the soloist and Manfred Honeck will lead the orchestra.  


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