Culture Magazine

Concert Review: The Original Gangsters

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The New York Philharmonic rumbles with West Side Story.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: The Original Gangsters

In residence: Yefim Bronfman (at the piano) and Alan Gilbert (with baton)
kicked off the 2013-14 New York Philharmonic subscription series on Thursday night.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic.

The New York Philharmonic has had a lot of openings in recent weeks--from the pre-season Film Week concerts to Wednesday night's gala evening with guest artist Yo-Yo Ma. On Thursday night, New York City's oldest orchestra (this is their 172nd season) presented it first subscription concert of the 2013-14 season. Alan Gilbert conducted.
This program featured just one piece left over from the orchestras opening night: Ravel's Alborada del grazioso. The orchestra sounded more cohesive in this performance, delivering the Spanish-style rhythms and short instrumental solos with a snap and vigor that was not present on opening night. The eloquent bassoon solo of principal Judith LeClair was particularly memorable, as was the contribution from the orchestra's stalwart brass section.
The legacy of Leonard Bernstein as composer and conductor is inexorably connected to the New York Philharmonic, and the ensemble always seems to polish up a bit when playing Bernstein's music. In this case , they attacked the  Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with all the exuberance of the Jets and Sharks turning over garbage cans, evoking the violence and romance of the mean streets of the old West Side slums with a crash of brass and percussion, and snapping their fingers unison in the opening section of the piece. (Of course, the ultimate irony of hearing this music in Avery Fisher Hall is in the fact that Lincoln Center was constructed on the rubble of that demolished neighborhood.)
The Symphonic Dances consist of nine brief extracts from the original score, re-arranged for large orchestra and originally played by the New York Philharmonic at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. Energetically led by Mr. Gilbert, this performance did not miss Bernstein's own brand of musical humor, mincing through the aria "Maria" (re-worked here by the composer as a pizzicato cha-cha) and charging into the systematic chaos of the "Mambo." In a total contrast, the sweeping, quasi-Wagnerian melody of "Somewhere" was played as a heart-rending duet for violins and principal horn.
The second half of the program featured the pianist Yefim Bronfman in his first performance of the season as the Philharmonic's 2013-14 Artist in Residence. Mr. Bronfman began his residency with Tchaikovsky's epic Piano Concerto No. 1 in a broad-shouldered, brisk performance that sacrificed none of the work's beauty in its pursuit of rhythmic drive. This was exciting, edge-of-the-seat stuff, a bit of redemption for this concerto whose popularity and ubiquity have made it a victim of its own success.
The "Tchaik One" (as it is known) is one of the most popular concertos, but a very stragenge one. Everyone knows the famous brass opening, but that theme seems to disappear early on, replaced bya parade of brilliant, if apparently unconnected melodic ideas. Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Gilbert navigated this stormy first movement with the ease of long partnership, making the string if thematic ideas form a coherent narrative of the composer's innermost thoughts.
The slow second movement was lovely and intimate, with soft utterances in the woodwinds and delicately rendered colors in the strings. These were echoed by descending themes from the solo keyboard. Mr. Gilbert marshaled his orchestra for the pell-mell finale, as Mr. Bronfman led the melodic charge forward, drawing thunderous cascades of sound out of his instrument echoed by the brass and strings of the Philharmonic players.

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