The New York Philharmonic honored its 175 anniversary at its Opening Gala Concert on September 21st with a brilliant American program of works the orchestra has premiered, past to present. Aaron Diehl was the superb piano soloist in his Philharmonic debut, and Alan Gilbert conducted.
The Philharmonic is many things. It is a towering skyscraper; a sumptuous ocean liner, a spaceship. In this listener’s mind the word associations with the orchestra will ever be 'charged' and 'thrilling.' Towards the end of the evening, this venerable institution seemed possessed by a collective memory of their grand premiere nearly 113 years ago of Dvorak's Symphony # 9: From the New World. In the last movements it was especially such, and despite the efforts of their leader the musicians finally played with their own assurance. From the beginning of this masterwork, the horns held sway with sweep both commanding and authoritative, in a narrative truer than the the conductor’s. Commendably, yet oddly, the bass section was the most colorfully imaginative of the group.
The program was introduced by the Philharmonic's Executive Director in a speech that would have been admirable as a pep talk in a board meeting. There was then a short film, overproduced and visually unappealing, which said, showed, and was, nothing.
It set the tone.
Despite the astonishing technical control of these musicians, the first half wanted in ingenuous expression. The New York première of the city’s own John Corigliano in the orchestral version of STOMP, originally for solo violin, opened the concert. The composer wrote: "I asked the players to tap or stomp on certain beats. This was because Stomp is actually "fiddle music" - country music, bluegrass, and jazz combined, and the original players often stomp to the rhythm (and mistune their instruments.)"
With vivid effects and a brilliant virtuoso scoring, John’s romp is a tractor ride fumed by moonshine in the Smokies, but this performance might well have been called STAMPED. The music is down, dirty, a blast. The Philharmonic was game, but its enthusiasm was polite, as was the reception. A too accomplished blending of timbres and some imprecise rhythmic angularities left a listless homogenous impression. Corigliano's wild child with the Phil's Madison Avenue pedicure did not rampage through the mud, and more Yelped than hollered.
Pianist Aaron Diehl is a wonder, and his performance in Gershwin's Concerto in F put the orchestra that premiered it in 1925 nearly to shame. This artist is a soulful urban poet, and no stranger to razzamatazz, to swing. In his treasure chest are emeralds, Gauloises, and items of unmentionable intimacy. The Phil played with swing, but it was the swing of a state-of-the-art self-closing titanium refrigerator door. The exceptions were oboist Sherry Sylar and flutist Mindy Kaufman, whose slow movement tunes were garbed in slinky satin negligees. It was unfortunate that the conductor was unable to coordinate the duet between flute and piano at the end of this movement.
In the program notes there was a picture of the incomparable Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston. Let us hope this orchestra learns to reconnect the rapport it should have with its melos, with the drama of the classics of its time.
We sincerely hope Mr. Diehl a re-engagement, ideally in an original work.
The Philharmonic is many things. Mostly, a gleaming example of unaware solitude without glee; of glint without twinkle. It is an office tower after work, a ship not arrived in port. A rocket bearing cargo.
We look forward to Maestro van Zweden.