The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Oh, That Fickle Phil

The New York Philharmonic is a fantastic orchestra with a great big sound. But every once in a while, for reasons an outsider such as I cannot know, the orchestra just phones one in. The rumor is they're picky about the conductors they play for. It's possible that some of these times the orchestra is trying their best, but the conductor is just idiosyncratic and difficult to follow. At any rate, tonight was one of those times. The performance was mushy, limp, and lacked rhythmic drive.

The conductor was Alan Gilbert, who is the son of a violinist in the orchestra. It thus seems awkward and sad that the performance didn't go so well (at least to my ears).

Problems were immediately apparent with Stokowski's famous "Fantasia" orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ (I read in the program this piece is now apocryphal -- who knew?). I always thought Stokowski's scoring was kind of lame, but tonight's performance lacked the sharpness that even Leopold's reconception of Bach requires. The music stopped and started, and the starts were hesitant and ragged. The fugue was rhythemless and mushy.

Next was the Ligeti Violin Concerto. I can't really comment on modernist pieces such as this. I defer to academics and musicians. All I, as a mere listener, can say is that it was unlistenable.

The first half opened with Webern's orchestration of a movement from Bach's Musical Offering. Not much to say about this either, just that the playing seemed in character with the evening.

Then came the reason I was there, Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. The opening of this piece should grab you immediately; it should hop along like a boy skipping down the banks of the Rhine (nice, right? okay, sorry). On this night, it was languid and sluggish. Gilbert hopped at times on the podium like he wanted some bounce, but he didn't get any. It seemed like he was over-conducting, trying to express every little feeling evoked by the score, rather than determine what must be done by the orchestra so that the score can speak for itself. He was dancing to the performance rather than firmly guiding it. I've never played under any conductor, so it is hard for me to imagine what playing for him would be like. But watching him, I thought his manner helped explain why the performance lacked any rhythmic consistency or drive. He was so busy expressing the music with his body that he could not maintain a steady beat at the same time.

From those loving expressions, it was also clear that he sought to shape and emphasize every little quirk and effect in the score. Yes, like Director Maazel. But distracting as Maazel's micro-management can be, the orchestra responds sensititively and with pinpoint accuracy to it. They were not nearly as responsive to Gilbert. They seemed just confused and disinterested.

The height of the disappointment was the opening to the weird and wonderful 4th movement. Half the orchestra, I think, expected a longer break. The jarring opening note was chaotically split into several. It was cringe-inducing.

This was actually my second shockingly-lackluster performance in a row. Glenn Dicterow (the common deminator, I suppose) and his Lyric Piano Quartet performed a pair of masterpieces on Sunday at the Barge: Schumann's E-flat and Brahms' G minor (the latter being one of the great pieces of music ever, period). The group was severely under-rehearsed, like I've never seen in a professional performance. There were screw-ups galore, and the playing was at once rough and feeble. Although those works are very difficult, especially the Brahms, these are extremely talented professionals; they clearly didn't take this event (or the venue?) very seriously. Which irked me, I have to say.

But you know what? They all still played a helluva lot better than I could.