Okay folks, thanks for the 15 minutes. Can we talk about music now? No other classical music news has topped this cell phone, not Thomas Quasthoff’s sad announcement of his retirement, not budget woes at San Antonio Opera and Trinity Wall Street, not the lockout at New York City Opera–much less a review of the actual music before and after the cellphone. Shows that our cultural focus is not on art, but on technology.
So here’s our two cents on the actual music–and there’s a story here, since one of the published reviews was extremely harsh. Lewis Smoley, author of an exhaustive study of Mahler recordings, called the Thursday night concert a “stultifying performance” at ClassicalSource.com:
Generally, the performance seemed under-rehearsed and sounded shabby, non-committal or disengaged, without engaging proper balancing of voices…Rarely have I witnessed from the NYP such intonation problems, so many cracks in the brass, such messy string figuration and so much woodwind imprecision. More substantively, Gilbert simply failed to generate any sense of this last completed work of Mahler.
In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini disagreed, calling the performance “well-played and resolute” and noting that Gilbert “took more risks interpretively…[he] is continuing to find his own way with these formidable scores as he takes the Philharmonic players through the cycle.”
So, who’s right?
Both of us went to the Saturday concert, and I went to Tuesday. On Saturday the brass did dominate, but we can take in-your-face Mahler, and we found few technical faults in the orchestra. Phil Myers delivered the fourth movement’s horn solo with more ease and richness than I’ve heard on any other performance or recording. If anything was missing it was schwung, that lilting rhythm that permeates the waltz and ländler rhythms in the first and second movements. In its place I felt that Gilbert often kept the tempi rock-steady and quick, leaving little room for expressiveness within the phrase.
But on Tuesday, before the celebrated cellphone, I felt that the tempos were more flexible and the sonority was better balanced between strings and brass. I still wanted the strings to dig in more in the second movement. I still missed how Horenstein, Bernstein, and Tennstedt used slower tempos in the first movement to impart more intensity to the phrasing. Still, I found the Tuesday performance much more subtle and expressive than just a few nights before.
Why did I react so differently on each night?
Maybe the Tuesday performance was actually better. But my perceptions probably had more to do with where we were sitting: mid-orchestra on Saturday, and first balcony on Tuesday. Avery Fisher is a notoriously poor hall, acoustically, and our Tuesday seats had much better string sound. At the ethereal last page of the score, I still wanted a more hushed string tone, more blurring between sound and silence as in Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording. But maybe that was the fault of the hall. The sense of absolute stillness, hard-won through the anguish, bitterness, and yearning of the preceding movements, was vividly realized.
Also, I paid closer attention on Tuesday to Gilbert’s pacing, feeling the pulse to see if my earlier impression of rhythmic stiffness was correct. I found that he was much more flexible than I thought he was on Saturday. Again, maybe he loosened up a bit, but it’s more likely that I had a superficial impression of the earlier concert and just listened better on Tuesday.
I don’t mean to accuse Smoley or Tommasini of rushing to judgment. Both are infinitely more experienced and knowledgeable than I am. But my own responses make me think that–speaking for myself only–I should be more tolerant. After all, this music only lives in performance, and is always a hybrid creation of composer, players, and conductor. Perhaps it’s better to seek the virtues of different interpretations, rather than depending too much upon the negative impressions of a moment.
Finally, before the Mahler, Gilbert and the Philharmonic treated us to a new work by the eminent British composer Thomas Adès, entitled Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra. It begins with a ostinato on a piano overlaid by scintillating textures in the strings, woodwinds, and percussion. This alternates with long, chorale-like themes from the brass, seated offstage. These elements weave into each other, building to a massive climax which ends this invigorating 13-minute piece.
Adès has been called an eclectic, and his music freely mingles sonorities reminiscent of minimalism, dense post-Romantic chromaticism, straightforward hymn-like diatonic harmony, the timbral vibrancy of Messiaen, and various genres of popular music. But his overall sound and style are strikingly different from other eclectics like John Adams: more lean and angular, and certainly compelling.