Monday, April 7, 2014

One Tough Phil

Pablo Heras-Casado made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic Wednesday April 2nd in Avery Fisher Hall. Their relationship was not an easy one. Overall, this listener’s impression was that Mr. Heras-Casado, lacking in authority and command, was taken for a ride by an orchestra with personality problems.
   The well-chosen program began with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, here impossibly colorless from rhythmic rigidity, and indifferently balanced within and between the orchestral choirs. There was no swoosh in the ocean waves nor in the waking gull’s calls, in this Dawn so very overcast. The horns did not peal, but glared into Sunday Morning, as might be heard on Mercury  (yet brilliant in imagination were the trills and warbling by the principal flutist).

At the syncopated entrance of the strings the young conductor led one beat uncoordinated between neck and hand, and the upper strings made sure we knew about it.
Moonlight was pedantic, unsung, inexpressive, episodic. The timpani ‘concerto’ opening of Storm, concluding with a great din, proves again that we New Yorkers are expert at brutality.
   Peter Serkin was the soloist in Bartok’s third Piano Concerto. Mr. Serkin’s gangly, angular yet scrupulous approach could be understood as discomfort. Mr. Heras-Casado’s overly large opening downbeat had the strings begin busily, not rustling; and this set the tone of apathy from the orchestra (did they think they were accompanying a Chopin Concerto?)  

Mr. Serkin played with weight, but without light. In Bartok’s very last composition, are we to believe he died of drabness? Perfunctory was the second movement; the piano’s first entrance was heavily peppered with coughs and hacks from the public. One hymn statement in the piano had an angelic coloring, but Mr. Serkin’s pedaled fast passages were more messy than blurry and with great stiffness he jabbed the octaves towards the end. Who could expect the last note to be together? In the exposition of the 3rd movement Peter Serkin’s hands and arms spent as much time above the keyboard as on it.
Was the audience yawning or passed out in the Fugato sections, which were sprung like trap doors? In the coda, I’ve heard better playing from community orchestras. The general impression was not pastoral, but flat, and the two most important people on stage were hardly gems of the first water.

Shostakovitch’s 10th Symphony is a big one, for which Mr. Heras-Casado doesn’t yet have a frame substantial enough to encompass. The reasons of the many solos and their relationships to the whole were opaque. Noteworthy was the principal clarinet who was free and open, the principal bassoonist who was elegant and suave, and the English horn player was also a standout. Towards the end of the third movement, concertmaster Glen Dicterow provided the most beautiful moment of the night. In just a few up-bows he revealed himself to be a godlike musical presence.

With a huge orchestra, the music is often volcanic. Mostly the principal horn dominated the music like a colossal hyena lording over a carrion island teeming with maggots. Could he have been personifying Stalin?
Some orchestras are nicer than others to their leaders. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra cuts them a lot of slack, from the great to the less experienced to the utterly impossible.

Mr. Heras- Casado is a musical man of great charm. He might want to explore an expanded range of physical gestures, and more emotional finesse. At the Philharmonic, there wasn’t much love.

This experience was an unhappy one.

Dear Readers! The Times reviewer's reaction to this concert was rather different. If you like, go read the opposite view here:

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