Gilbert, New York Philharmonic open season with the Rite stuff

September 20, 2012
By Paul J. Pelkonen

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic’s opening night marks the beginning of the classical music season at Lincoln Center. This year, Alan Gilbert opened the season not with a splashy gala or free concert, but with a regular subscription performance, featuring works by György Kurtag and Igor Stravinsky flanking Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.

The concert started with Mr. Kurtag’s tone-poem …quasi una fantasia…, a “spatial” work that spread the Philharmonic musicians into the depths of Avery Fisher Hall. Alan Gilbert, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and timpanist Markus Rhoten were the only players onstage. Considering that the orchestra ended its previous season with a celebration of spatial music at the Park Avenue Armory, the Kurtag proved a smart choice.

Themes played by Andsnes were responded to and echoed by the instruments in the house. Gilbert conducted facing the audience, making the listener feel like a participant in his direction. (Some listeners did participate in an unhelpful way, adding extempore sneezes, coughs and a program drop that were not in the score.) The 11-minute work moves from passages of spectral beauty to fearsome power, with a full-weight fortissimo at its center that recalls the climactic moments of Bruckner.

The Beethoven Third Piano Concerto followed. Andsnes is currently recording all five of these concertos with himself as conductor, which may have contributed to the curious sense of disconnect between himself and Gilbert in the first two movements. However, the solo piano lines were beautifully phrased, with a smooth legato technique and ample room for the pianist to make magic in the cadenzas. The third movement was the most successful, an energetic rondo that at last tapped into the kinetic potential of this piece.

There were no such energy problems with the second half performance of The Rite of Spring. Judith LeClair played the opening bassoon line with spacious phrasing, stretching it out and making the notes sound much like the mysterious ululation of some pagan priestess. The entire introduction was played with great clarity, allowing listeners to hear the sonic seeds that would blossom into the mayhem to come.

When the chugging break-rhythms started in the violas and cellos, the invisible pagan celebrants flexed and snarled with fearsome power. Brass and percussion tore into their melodic lines, and the whole ballet had a quality of savage joy. The Philharmonic’s music director acted the part of ringmaster, putting this fearsome beast through its paces and the precision of Gilbert’s leadership contributed to the performance’s brutality—Stravinsky played with an edge of cold steel.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 212-875-5656. 

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