BWW Review: NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PLAYS RUSSIAN CLASSICS at David Geffen Hall At Lincoln Center
Friday afternoon concerts at the New York Philharmonic have long been a staple of New York's musical life. At 2 p.m. on what is usually a workday, David Geffen Hall can be packed with a variety of music lovers. From tourists to office workers taking a break to retirees and others, the Hall is the place to be for a healthy dose of culture in the middle of the day.
Programming is usually not too adventurous, and that's fine with this audience. On Friday October 26, 2018 the mostly sold-out crowd of avid listeners heard the music of a slate of 19th and early 20th century Russian composers, conducted by the Russian-born conductor Tugan Sokhiev in his New York Philharmonic debut series.
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was a part-time musician and composer. His body of work is small but some of it is quite memorable. One of the so-called "Mighty Handful" a/k/a "Russian Five", Borodin is perhaps best known for his opera Prince Igor. The popular song "Stranger in Paradise" is derived from this opera. His compositions demonstrate the love of Russian folk tunes so prevalent in the music of the "Mighty Handful". In the Steppes of Central Asia,which Borodin composed in 1880, contains a blend of Russian and "oriental" melodies (and more than a few references to Prince Igor) in a hazy vision of a caravan proceeding across the moor-like steppe. Borodin emphasized the clarinet and English horn by giving them the important musical lines. These were beautifully played by Acting Associate principal clarinet Pascual Martinez Forteza and Grace Shryock,respectively.
Mr. Sokhiev took a leisurely pace for this piece, almost too leisurely as the central rhythmic pulse nearly disappeared under the weight of the slow tempo. What should have been wistful and dreamy became heavy and ponderous. It was not the most promising start to the concert.
Gil Shaham was the star soloist in the next piece. Violin Concerto No.1 in D Major Op.19 was composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1917. Prokofiev (1891-1953) creatively recycled material (as many other composers have done) from some of his earlier compositions. Of the five separate strands in this sound world, there are lyrical lines as well as truly savage moments. Mr. Shaham tore into that savagery with his own inimitable ferocity. In spite of the orchestra's sometimes overwhelming volume-the dynamics occasionally got away from Mr. Sokhiev- Mr. Shaham's overall artistry provided a satisfying end to the first half of this otherwise and thus far uninspiring concert.
It was with Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) Symphony No.4 in F minor op.36, composed in 1878, that the New York Philharmonic suddenly came alive. From the brilliant opening brass blasts of the first movement (Andante Sostenuto-Moderato con anima) to the horse race conclusion of the piece, this orchestra caught fire and played their hearts out. It most likely wouldn't have mattered who was on the podium. It was obvious to the audience that the musicians loved playing this piece.
Associate Principal oboe Sherry Sylar opened the symphony's second movement (andantino in moda di canzona) with a yearning, melancholic melody in B-flat minor. This melody is so famous it could be a song on its own. Ms. Sylar performed it with grace and elegance.
A little more than half of the third movement (Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro) is only played by plucked (pizzicato) strings in a melody that seems intended to go from one stereo channel to another. Of course, there was no stereo in Tchaikovsky's day, but this movement does contain an element of charm as the musical line is handed off between the upper and lower strings. The string section's perfect articulation of un-bowed notes was quite impressive.
The Philharmonic really cut loose in the fourth and final movement (Finale:Allegro con Fuoco). Even though the dynamics were a bit out of Mr.Sokhiev's control, this time it didn't matter. The no-holds-barred, take no prisoners music making was as exciting as could be, and turned this concert around from being somewhat dull to stunningly stellar. Due in large part to the leadership of principal trumpet Christopher Martin, principal trombone Joseph Alessi, Horn playerJen Montone, principal tuba Alan Baer and principal tympanist Markus Rhoten, the playing was of such an exceedingly high level that the (otherwise quiet and well-behaved) audience was brought to its feet immediately after the final thrilling notes had sounded. Mr. Sokhiev may have gotten the bows, but the orchestra got the applause and the cheers.
What a wonderful way to spend a Friday afternoon!