Thursday, 22 October 2009

New York Phlharmonic Orchestra Asian Horizons Tour / Review

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Monday (19 October 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 October 2009.

The Esplanade Concert Hall has played host to some of the world’s great orchestras, and the New York Philharmonic – last heard in the 2002 Opening Festival – became its first returnee. Under new Music Director Alan Gilbert, who took over the baton from Lorin Maazel this season, the orchestra performed with both authority and added spring to its steps.

Its opening mission was to partner German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann (left) in Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, and seldom has the orchestral introduction sounded this clear and immaculate. No doubt a smaller force was employed, and despite what early critics decried as “a concerto against the violin”, the balance between soloist and orchestra was closer to an alliance of equals.

Zimmermann’s tone isn’t particularly voluminous, but this was more than made up by laser-like incisiveness and accuracy. Questions about his ability to emote were answered in the slow movement, spurred on by principal oboist Wang Liang’s exquisite solo. The gypsy-styled finale brought on the desired fireworks, but his encore of Bach’s Andante (from Sonata No.2) displayed the warm unflagging pulse of a human heartbeat.

Historians will note that the New York Philharmonic was from 1909 to 1911 helmed by one Gustav Mahler. Its Mahler credentials were immediately confirmed not just by virtuosity of execution but an instinctive feel for the Austrian composer’s First Symphony, with all its nuances and quirks. The opening hum and awakening buzz of nature was slow and deliberate, but one well worth waiting for.

What is Mahler (left) without his earthy country-dances, coloured with brimming life and tinged with the spectre of death? The second movement kicked into gear unapologetically and the ensuing Funeral March ambled drolly to principal bass Eugene Levinson’s unerring chant of Frere Jacques, and later delighting in strains of cackling Klezmer.

The joy of this band is in its subtlety and suppleness. Under Gilbert, who conducted from memory, the slow sections of the titanic finale were stretched to almost breaking point, only to rebound with great immediacy. Climaxes were built from almost nothing, later erupting with unfettered ecstasy. Overstatement of extremes is the essence and lifeblood of Mahler and the New Yorkers supplied in heaps, in turn greeted with the most vociferous of cheers.

Its sole encore, Intermezzo by Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar – showcasing more gorgeous strings - whetted the appetite for a second and much anticipated evening.

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