Every assistant conductor must dream of the day when he or she will ascend the podium to take over from the music director or a guest. It came true for the New York Philharmonic’s Joshua Gersen replacing the ailing Semyon Bychkov in this Tchaikovsky program. Solti Foundation-supported and prize-winning Gersen was completely self-assured and in full control.
The Taneyev piece had to be dropped, so the concert opened with Francesca da Rimini, based upon the tale of the ill-fated illicit lovers, Paolo and Francesca, described in ‘Canto V’ of Dante’s Divine Comedy; the result is a supercharged orchestral drama. After a lugubrious opening section, a morose vision of the Gates of Hell, there follows a tempestuous allegro that describes the Second Circle in which those who gave in to carnal passion are subjected to eternal torment. In the middle section, Tchaikovsky evokes in bittersweet terms the lovers’ emotions, and finally they are swept up in the violent storm that recalls the opening music.
Gersen commanded a brilliant performance, energized with riveting intensity and shattering in its dramatic power. The orchestra was caught up in the fury of this nightmare of Walpurgisnacht revel. By contrast clarinetist Anthony McGill intoned a melancholy refrain, which introduces the central section, and stunning violins brought this theme to the height of emotive expression before the reprise of the first section was even more demonic than before.
Brisk pacing in all but the Finale characterized Gersen’s reading of the ‘Pathétique’. From the outset there was an underlying urgency that impelled the music forward, nearly reaching hysteria in the middle section of the opening movement. The second was rather hurried, causing some inflexibility and disaffecting what should be grazioso fluency. The march of the next movement became more of a gallop, Gersen urging things forward as the coda was viewed. The slow Finale came off most successfully – paced steadily without being subjected to undue pressure.
Joshua Gersen deserves high praise for stepping in to conduct two demanding works. The Philharmonic musicians wanted him to succeed and played brilliantly, without affectation or roof-shattering volume … a very favorable impression.