New York Philharmonic Comes Out Slugging in L.A.

United StatesUnited States  Dvořák, Magnus Lindberg, Tchaikovsky: Yefim Bronfman (piano), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, 9.05.2012 (LV)

Dvořák: Carnival Overture
Magnus Lindberg: Piano Concerto No. 2 (West Coast premiere)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4

As if it were the first round in a classical music Battle of the Bands, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic came out slugging. Dvorak’s Carnival Overture brought the house down, Magnus Lindberg’s new piano concerto took no prisoners, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was so brilliant they had to play a Berlioz overture as an encore. The glittering, sold-out audience loved it all, whether it was a silken down-bow or a kettle drum smash.

Playing for the first time in Disney Hall, Gilbert and his band focused their energy in the horizontal plane of sound: it was smooth, coherent and transparent, but little depth. The strings, laid out in the traditional string quartet configuration—first violins, violas, cellos, second violins, with double basses behind on the right—were immaculate. The first-chair solos in every section were gorgeous, charismatic and efficient.

On the podium, Alan Gilbert looked engaged and in control; he crouched, jumped, cued, and implored—all with good humor, confidence and precision. Despite his exertions, however, the orchestra played on cruise control. Except for some lyrical stretches in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, when the orchestra answered Gilbert’s pleading with an unconvincing semblance of personal phrasing, the playing was as uninvolved as it was magnificent.

Magnus Lindberg’s 30-minute-long Piano Concerto No. 2, the flagship of the orchestra’s California tour, recalled Golden Age Hollywood’s conservative notions of “modern” classical music in films like The Enchanted Cottage. Lindberg’s ambitions were thwarted by a lack of memorable tunes and a meandering dramatic structure with little rhyme or reason. It was, however, a spectacular showcase for the orchestra, and more spectacular one still for Yefim Bronfman, who got down to his task as if he were a regular contestant at piano-playing contests in which the winner played the loudest and ate the most notes.

The New York Philharmonic marketing people call the New York Philharmonic “America’s orchestra,” as if they were a professional sports team. If that’s what they mean, then Alan Gilbert will have to prove that, as an orchestral quarterback, he’s closer to the New York Giants’ Eli Manning than he is to the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez.

Laurence Vittes

This same program was performed in New York—Bruce Hodges reviewed it here.