Come for the Mezzo stay for the Stravinsky – New York Philharmonic + Joyce DiDonato + Alan Gilbert / Barbican Hall 17 February 2012

21 Feb

The programme for this evening had a wonderfully cohesive make up. It brought together contemporary music, late romanticism, fledging modernism and the muscular angularity of early US Stravinsky in one night. It was a great choice that made obvious the strengths of the orchestra and its ability to change their well blended sound to suit the work.

The opening commission and a UK première by Thomas Adès was an appropriately luminous and intriguing piece to get the evening rolling, a great statement on the continuing success of this wonderful British composer. Two sections of brass were on Balcony and Circle adding textural and spatial variety. The contrapuntal motifs of the piece were woven into an irresistible whole. At once mysterious and bright. He was there to receive the warm applause from the audience. Which was well deserved and made a statement of the NY Phil as a supporter and promoter of contemporary music, something they have done for a very long time. Also interestingly Esa-Pekka Salonen was in the audience…no pressure then!

Les nuits d’été is a great vehicle for a warm voice (sang by contraltos, mezzos, sopranos and tenors) and one work that always causes fans to compare between the hundreds of recorded versions. It makes requirements on both range and interpretative facility. Joyce DiDonato lived up to her reputation and to my previous experiences of seeing her live. It was unfortunate that she sounded a bit shrill up to the end of Le spectre de la rose. We can attribute it to jet lag as her performance was exemplary from then on, soaring to the highest of her range in L’ile inconnue  to the absolute masterful use of her chest voice in Sur les lagunes: Lamento which was the highlight of the evening.  Her interpretation was highly involved and sparkling as much as her dress (fresh from the Grammys). Gilbert’s conducting was very sensitive and involved, taking great care at articulating phrases and working with DiDonato to blend the different textures together. Now if anyone could let me know why a few fellow members of the audience started clapping after the pre-last song, I’d be grateful. I’m not a huge advocate for strict concert etiquette but a glimpse at the free programme would have made everyone that Les nuits has 6 parts!

I was expecting the Stravinsky to be ravishing, if any orchestra can grasp Stravinsky’s American idiom it is the NY Phil. They worked with the composer extensively for a period of over 20 years and that is a huge part of the New Yorkers’ modernist sensitivity. The playing was focused, intense and with an extraordinary attention to the overall architecture of the work. His use of the piano in the first movement to propel the piece and the harp in the second can  be too tame when played with caution. No problem for these players, they kept the momentum and the pulsating if jagged texture of the work. It did not sound polite or sane, more of an uncompromising veteran Stravinsky. Who arrived to the US with a huge appetite to provoke and to make his name in his own terms. As a friend put it…’the Stravinsky was topping’

The arrival of the Ravel brought with it a much open and expansive acoustic from the orchestra, a colourful, luxurious sound that was refreshing and suitable. That unfortunately did not prevent a woman in purple occupying the front row sleeping through most of it. Even the incredible crescendo of the Danse générale failed to wake her up! The spectral effects required for Ravel’s mature music can easily disintegrate under an insensitive conductor or an orchestra used to empty gestures, the New Yorkers had a celebratory joy to their playing. Substance backed their fun delivery.

After this fantastic concert we even got two encores, concluding with Lew Pollack’s That’s a plenty…check out the video the Orchestra posted from their Amsterdam concert a few days before their Barbican residency 😉

I am looking forward to their return to the Barbican in the coming seasons, as despite the fact that London is home to so many world class orchestras it is wonderful to have guests of this calibre and programmes of this quality.

Read More

The PDF of the Barbican residency programme

The Tour Blog of the NYPhil

Some Tweets from the Evening

The Brassy Encore

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