Violin Concerto in D, Op.61 Adams
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic/Gilbert Midori [Beethoven's Violin Concerto & John Adams’s Harmonielehre]
Friday, November 12, 2010 Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Reviewed by Gene Gaudette
Seven years ago, the New York Philharmonic came very close to merging its operations with Carnegie Hall – and thus striking a huge blow to Lincoln Center. There has long been speculation about what would have happened (not to mention some outlandish theories about what was going on behind the scenes), but one thing is certain: the move would have been to the enormous benefit of the Philharmonic. In Carnegie Hall, the orchestra's sound – particularly that of the violins and brass – takes on a warmer character while retaining its signature brilliance, and the balances from section to section are far more even than in Avery Fisher, where they tend to change radically depending on where one is seated.
It's hard to believe that Midori has been a fixture on the New York concert scene for nearly thirty years, following a spectacular debut as a substitute soloist with the Philharmonic in 1982. She's also a major mover and shaker, running a philanthropic organization for young performers. So it's more the pity that her performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto so rubbed me the wrong way. Her sound was small and overly bright, and her articulation was a shade too pretty throughout. Suave, elegant playing will only get one so far in this concerto; many stretches of the first movement and finale demand more assertive playing, and it never materialized. The first movement was bland overall and taken at a broad tempo. (What I wouldn't give to hear more soloists and conductors take this opening movement at a faster, gallant pace that still maintains the Allegro ma non troppo marking.) Midori tended to rush quasi-grupetto sixteenth-note figures, and the slowed tempos at the end of key phrases added no drama – in fact, they detracted from the movement's continuity. The ultra-slow tempo following the cadenza came off as an exercise in lethargy as opposed to musical poetry. The second movement was taken at a slightly faster tempo than usual. Alan Gilbert surprised when he elicited unexpected uncharacteristically sunny playing from the orchestra; by comparison, Midori sounded glib. The finale was taken at a brisk clip, and again the contrast between the spirited playing of the orchestra and Midori's penchant to exaggerate the length of third beats and to push the tempo didn't work. Gilbert, for his part, did a solid job of reining in dynamics so as not to swamp the soloist, but overall this was a very frustrating listening experience.
John Adams's Harmonielehre made a huge impression when Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony premiered and recorded it in the mid-1980s. While many critics have sought to pigeonhole Adams as a "melodic minimalist”, Alan Gilbert brought something different and welcome to this performance of it – a romantic, passionate sound to the sweeping, slow melodies that emerge in the first and third movements, that seemed strongly reminiscent of the orchestral music of Howard Hanson. There was a great deal more detail and transparency in this performance than I had heard in live accounts by David Robinson and the Saint Louis Symphony or the composer directing the Juilliard Orchestra. Gilbert tempered the still-startling staccato fortissimo chords that open the work, which would leave plenty of dynamic room for the climaxes to come. The collision of repeated chords and ostinatos that predominate the first half of Part I sounded more like Conlon Nancarrow than Steve Reich or Philip Glass, both of whom Adams is frequently (and inaccurately) compared. The first ‘big tune’ doesn't enter until about six minutes, and the sudden, passionate sweep of the music was simply startling. Gilbert brought intense urgency and power to one of the most thrilling ‘false’ climaxes in American music, which leads into a bracing, fierce coda. Part II is titled ‘The Amfortas Wound’, and Gilbert's emphatic phrasing imparted the first half of this vaguely tonal music with a character not unlike that of Roy Harris, with a brief few bars of ascending chords in the winds sounding like something out of Wagner's Prelude to “Parsifal”; the second half, dominated by slow rising scalar motifs, seemed suspended in time. Gilbert's tempo at the outset of Part III, ‘Meister Eckhart and Quackie’, was a slight bit slower than normal, but worked in Stern Auditorium. Again, even with the work’s ‘minimalist’ trappings, the character in the melodic material was closer to that of the big pre-war symphonic scores of Hanson, the emphasis more on orchestral color and melodic sweep, even as the coda reaches ‘critical mass’ as the horns and trumpets drive the work to a thrilling end.
As with the Philharmonic's late-autumn appearance at Carnegie Hall last year (also following a tour), Gilbert and the Philharmonic played an encore in homage to Leonard Bernstein, who died twenty years ago to the day: a restrained, atmospheric performance of ‘Lonely Town’ from “On the Town”.