Carnegie Hall’s 125th Annivesary Gala Opening : NY Philharmonic and Tchaikovsky Reunited

Lindberg, Tchaikovsky, Ravel:  Evgeny Kissin (piano), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 7.10.2015 (SSM)

Magnus Lindberg: Vivo (2015; World Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2

For the opening night gala of Carnegie Hall’s 125th season, it was appropriate that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, whose home is in Lincoln Center, trekked across town to perform. It was in Carnegie Hall that the NYPO gave the inaugural concert in 1891, and they were also the house orchestra before taking up residence in Avery Fisher (now David Geffen) Hall. Fittingly, they chose a work by Tchaikovsky who, along with William Damrosch, opened the official first season here.

It was an eclectic audience that included some 250 benefactors. The days before had been rife with rumors and innuendos about upper management machinations, and there was some conversation around the hall, but if there was an undercurrent of political intrigue, I never felt it. Probably more diverting were the logistical problems inherent in seating late-arriving, elegantly dressed patrons, which left Gilbert and the NYPO waiting until a solution could be found.

Patriotism has obviously made a comeback: the orchestra opened with a rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. The audience stood up and, in traditional ballpark fashion, cheered at its end. Fortunately, we did not have to sit through a soloist reaching beyond his or her vocal capabilities.

Vivo, the commissioned piece by Magnus Lindberg, had the elements of a fanfare or overture and was performed by an orchestra heavy on brass and percussion. Bongos, crotales, cymbals, bells  ̶  all added to the dense blocks of sound that alternated with lighter (but never light) passages. Some moments brought to mind Mahler finales: an unrepressed Mahler, not afraid to turn the volume up. Other moments had me thinking that somehow Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” had reared its head, still alive but angrier and more discordant.

What was noticeable in this piece and in the works that followed was how good the NYPO sounded in Carnegie Hall, with a vibrancy not usually heard in their Lincoln Center home. They might have been the Berlin Philharmonic: the brass buffed to a shine, the strings playing sumptuously and the winds clear and clean.  

If only timbre were sufficient to please the listener, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 might provide a tolerable half hour of music. Kiril Gerstein makes a convincing argument that the posthumously published edition (definitive in our time) was not the composer’s final say. For instance, the bombastic opening chords are a sound world apart from the earlier edition in which they are arpeggiated. Given the popularity of the work and its unending presence in documentaries about the Moscow and Van Cliburn competitions, it was good to hear Kissin use a just and measured approach, reigning back from piano pounding. Gilbert, as well, kept much of the orchestra frenzy-free. The short solo passages for cello and clarinet were elegantly dispatched.

Ravel’s heavily programmatic Daphnis et Chloé showed the orchestra at its best. Although Ravel’s score carries his descriptions of which images the listener should be visualizing, it is best to close one’s eyes and just listen to his opulent music. Ravel was one of the century’s great orchestrators, able to bring color and light to every measure. Gilbert’s performance here was full-bodied, the orchestra totally responsive to his gestures. It takes years for a conductor to reach the point where the members of an orchestra know exactly what is expected of them. Gilbert’s announced departure after the next season will be a loss for all involved.

Stan Metzger

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