Culture Magazine

Concert Review: A Game of Chairs

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Iván Fischer leads (and reseats) the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: A Game of Chairs

Conductor Iván Fischer leads the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo courtesy the New York Philharmonic © 2014 The Budapest Festival Orchestra.

The seating of an orchestra is usually at the discretion of the conductor. On Wednesday night, visitors to David Geffen Hall for the first of three concerts featuring Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer and the New York Philharmonic were confronted with a radical rearrangement of the orchestra. The stage risers, almost never seen at a Philharmonic concert, were in use, putting the musicians in tiers with the basses at the top, dead center and directly opposite the conductor's podium.
For this concert, which paired Beethoven's epic Violin Concerto with Antonín Dvořák's swaggering Symphony No. 8. The kettledrums were on stage left, the opposite of their usual location. To their left and slightly downstage, the heavy brass lurked, with trumpets, trombones and tuba deployed. The horns were wide right, moved from their usual position at the center of the ensemble. And the strings were reconfigured too, with the cellos on the left, the violas on the right and the second violin section separated and on the conductor's right.
All this rearrangement may not sound like a big deal, but the seating of players can cause a radical reconfiguration in the way a listener hears the orchestra. In fact it was similar to the way Mr. Fischer sets up with his usual band, the excellent Budapest Festival Orchestra, the ensemble he founded  in 1983 and where he continues to serve as music director. As the Beethoven started, the new configuration was warm and balanced, providing a vast canvas of sound for the soloist to make his entrance.
This was Nicolaj Znaider, no stranger to the Philharmonic stage and a respectable member of the brethren of international violin virtuosi. He played with a cool, slightly dry tone that was refreshing to the ear, supported by Mr. Fischer and the Philharmonic in a performance that kept its momentum but allowed the music a chance to expand. The audience, liking what it heard, applauded the epic first movement, a gesture that sometimes annoys conductors but here politely acknowledged from the podium.
The next two movements were taken attacca, with a long lyric line in the central slow movement allowing Mr. Znaider room for poetic expression. The finale is one of Beethoven's most inspired, standing on the bridge between a Scherzo, a Rondo and an Austrian Ländler combining elements of all three into a celebration of warmth, life and vitality. Here, this cheerful music was a springboard for Mr. Znaider and Mr. Fischer to show their creativity and good spirits, giving their audience a needed balm for the ears.
That same positive spirit infused the performance of the Dvorak Eighth, the most optimistic of this composer's later symphonies. The opening movement started warm and low in the cellos before yielding to a jaunty march theme picked out in brass and timpani. The expanded and altered seating allowed those sections to play antiphonally, creating a wide and cinematic feel to this first movement. The slow movement featured the Philharmonic's eloquent wind section giving vent to halting thoughts, conducted with great subtlety by Mr. Fischer. Both movements received warm applause.
The dance movement here isn't really a traditional scherzo but a dour waltz in 3/8 with heavy elements of Czech folk music, a special interest of this composer's. Mr. Fischer seemed particularly at home here giving voice to the melancholy violins before sprinting through the fast, slightly manic coda. The finale opened with a blast of trumpets announcing not a battle but a series of dances. This movement is a fast exercise in slow buildup, repetition and dynamics, coming to a thrilling series of climaxes when the two separate brass sections grabbed the big theme and refused to let it go. 

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