Monday, February 8, 2010

New York Philharmonic

Over the last year and a half, I've been fortunate enough to see some of the world's great musicians perform. This didn't dampen my anticipation at all, though, for the concert I went to last Thursday. The New York Phil and their new music director, Alan Gilbert, have been all over the (classical music) news now for some time; partly because the press has been almost completely positive about him, and partly because the New York Phil is arguably the United States' most distinguished orchestra, I was really looking forward to it. Excited, even, like a kid going to a carnival. And with that excitement, I made no claim to objectivity: I was fully prepared to be blown away, to be transported, to witness the best orchestra I had ever witnessed...

But then they opened with Haydn. And not a charming, witty Haydn symphony, a wallowing, minor-key yawn that began with — and seemed to remain — a slow movement. Though the people sitting behind me (who I think were music students) were not impressed by the string section, my good will saw me through to the next piece, John Adams' The Wound Dresser. Again, I have to admit that I'm not impartial: I have known and loved that piece for years. Sometimes, though, hearing a piece you love — from the balcony played noncommittally — can be an underwhelming experience. Plus, as it's a slowly unfolding, almost meditative work, it wasn't served well by the dreary piece it followed.

As lukewarm as I was feeling at the intermission, things started looking up: their performance of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony was far superior to the Haitink/London Symphony performance of it I saw in October (that may have more to do with Bernard Haitink's careful and cautious reading of it). Their final piece, Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, is a favorite of mine and they performed it well.

They didn't shine through, however, until the encores. Maybe they (or Gilbert?) loosened up — the weight of a European tour lifted. But both encores, Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Bernstein's Lonely Town from On the Town, were beyond perfect. They crept into that rare kind of music making that makes you react viscerally rather than critically. They gave me that transcendental something I had come for, and more than made up for an otherwise tepid concert.

One final thing: as a young trumpet player, I have long admired the principal trumpet player of the NYP, Philip Smith. Maybe that's understating it: Philip Smith makes the trumpet sound how it is supposed to sound. Hearing him play live (there were plenty of trumpet solos in Adams' piece) was something I had wanted to do for at least the last decade. So Mr. Smith, in case you have a google notification set up for your name, Bravo to you, sir!

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