Gilbert’s NYPO in Rause, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky vs. Istanbul’s Acoustics Problem

TurkeyTurkey Rause, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky: New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Joshua Bell (violin), Istanbul 3.5.13 (AM)

Christopher Rause: “Prospero’s Rooms” for Orchestra (2012, European premiere)
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) (1954)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, “Pathetique”

When you are in Istanbul, you can almost swear the city is built on acoustics alone. The hustle and bustle of the city, the relentless gush of car horns, the spasmodic, but unswerving frequency of police and ambulance sirens –not to mention the lurid muezzin calls to prayer five times a day, and you have a city that more-or-less thrives on sound. Not so much, when it comes to proper music venues, however: Istanbul has a chronic acoustics problem where concert halls are concerned. Halic Congress Center, a fairly large auditorium that seats 3,000 is where the majority of orchestral classical music concerts are held –particularly those that are headlined by the more prominent orchestras that attract a substantial audience. The problem is that Halic is designed as a congress center, and not a concert hall, and its stage, in line with its chief purpose, is built with a low ceiling and little depth with a speaker-sound design in mind. In fact, the stage is built to trap in the sound to circumvent reverberation of the spoken voice, and instead distribute it via speakers over the hall. But when you have an orchestra whose resonance is supposed to disperse organically, this design creates complications: the front rows receive a giant wall of sound, while the back rows and the balcony receive “little more than a soft mumble”, as a friend put it after tonight’s otherwise stupendous concert. But anyway, this problem is not likely to go away any time soon, so it may be best to savor whatever was audible this evening.

It has been nearly 20 years since the New York Philharmonic last visited Istanbul when they were headed by Kurt Masur (as a side note, they had played a pretty adventurous program for Turkey standards, by Webern, Barber, Mahler and Wagner). And it was a delight to hear them many years later in a similarly ambitious schedule on the first night of their two night residency in Istanbul.

The evening started with Rause’s Prospero’s Rooms in its European premiere –only two weeks after our friends in New York witnessed its world premiere. The brief but chilling piece must have lost much of its minutiae as it tried to make itself heard, but the ominous tolling of the clock and the silent measures (or so I thought!) just before Red Death snuffs out the life from Prospero made quite an impression. The composer’s experimentation with music representing colors may not be immediately apparent, but the music’s many colors definitely are.

As much as Joshua Bell’s lenient and organic violin playing did its best to help, Bernstein’s Serenade is not a work that I could care for: it is too much an intellectual exercise. The theoretical design of the work, and the thought process that lies behind it is too much to digest, and the music, without its curricular connotations, fails to stand up on its own. That being said, the NYPO and Mr. Gilbert realized Bernstein’s ideas meticulously whether it be the contrapuntal elements in Phaedrus’ oration on “the duality of the lover and the beloved” or the final movement’s evocation of a high-spirited celebration.

The second half of the program was allocated to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74. I always pair the Pathetique with the New York Philharmonic for two reasons: first, my favorite recording of the work is by the NYPO (Leonard Bernstein’s tortured, exhausting 1986 live recording for Deutsche Grammophon), and second, the only live performance of the symphony I’ve attended before this evening was by the NYPO (with Lorin Maazel in Avery Fisher Hall in 2004 -a dreadful experience). Alan Gilbert’s take on the work could not be more different from Bernstein’s, but it was just as effective. The first movement’s lush and capacious love themes were treated economically, almost like a remake of a classic love story form a modern and more dynamic perspective: there was nothing in the essence of the work that was lost. Under Mr. Gilbert, NYPO’s strings can shape shift with extraordinary agility. They were equally convincing in the Allegro non troppo, when they synthesized with the sweet woodwinds and in the final Andante mosso while projecting the harsh callousness of approaching death. The orchestra’s dancing rhythm in the Andante shone the spotlight on the woodwinds, while the ferocious third movement ricocheted the strength of the orchestra’s brass section.

In conceptual terms, it is not all that unusual for the audience to burst into applause after the third movement as they did tonight: Tchaikovsky’s symphony is, in many ways, an allegory for life. It gives us three of its main tenets in three movements: love, dance and celebration, which is a good enough reason to clap for in exultation. And there is, again conceptually, nothing to applaud for in the final movement which symbolizes death. The urgency for giving an enthusiastic ovation at the end of this remarkable performance was understandable, but Alan Gilbert remained with his back to the audience, refusing to acknowledge the applause, and broodingly implanted a few seconds of total silence into the music.

Alain Matalon