Carnival Overture, Op.92
Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C, Op.56
Sophisticated Lady; On a Turquoise Cloud; Solitude; It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got the Swing)
An American in Paris
Emanuel Ax (piano), Gil Shaham (violin) & Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Audra McDonald (vocalist)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 5 May, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This concert celebrating the 120th-anniversary of Carnegie Hall featured the New York Philharmonic, the successor of the Symphony Society of New York, which had performed at the Hall’s inaugural in 1891. The sold-out gala drew the most formally-dressed audience of the New York concert season, including a Who’s Who of musicians, arts donors, and New York celebrities. There were high-definition cameras throughout the hall, speakers at the sides of the stage, a forest of microphones above the orchestra, and large red and deep-pink flowers arrayed in a ring around, and some fifteen feet above, the stage. Despite the doldrums that supposedly pervade the classical music scene in the United States (including the ongoing financial fiascos involving the Philadelphia Orchestra and Detroit Symphony), the mood of the audience was uniformly upbeat.
Following speeches by Carnegie Hall’s executive director Clive Gillinson and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the musical program began with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, which the composer had conducted at Carnegie Hall in 1892. The performance was hard-driven and bombastically unidiomatic, although the orchestra sounded tighter than it has for most of the season under music director Alan Gilbert, with more graceful playing, particularly from the strings, of the second theme and in the slow middle section. Gilbert looked a bit more animated than he usually does even in energetic standard repertoire.
Beethoven’s Triple Concerto got a far more gracious treatment. Gil Shaham, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, are all Carnegie Hall favorites. Ma and Ax have been chamber-music partners for decades, and Shaham has headlined interesting programs for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. They sounded like a seasoned group. Gilbert, who has consistently proven to be a sympathetic and precise concerto partner, was on the same page with the soloists throughout the work. The first movement was more languid than usual, yet quite convincing. The soloists’ approach to the big melodies of the second movement sometimes sounded Brahmsian. The brisk tempo of the Polonaise finale pushed the ‘devil-may-care’ limit on the sixteenth-note triplet figures, which the soloists nevertheless dispatched with both precision and rhythmic clarity, and the rumbustious mood of the main theme was delivered with gusto by all.
Following intermission, Audra MacDonald offered four songs by Duke Ellington, in homage to his legendary Carnegie Hall appearances as composer and bandleader that began with the color-barrier-breaking concert of 23 January 1943 (and in 1938 Ellington had participated in Benny Goodman’s ground-breaking gig). “It don’t mean a thing if the orchestra don’t swing” sang MacDonald. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of swing from the Philharmonic; the arrangements certainly allow room for it, but sounded bland and foursquare. The most effective of the four songs was the least familiar, “On a Turquoise Cloud”, a soulful vocalise written with the concert hall in mind. MacDonald’s voice, which carries abundant personality and lent effective drama and mood to each selection, was amplified (along with the pianist and bassist), but not too greatly – and she assuredly could have held her own without it.
George Gershwin’s An American in Paris received its world premiere in 1928 in Carnegie Hall under Walter Damrosch, whose Symphony Society of New York was then just months away from its merger with the Philharmonic. The first section was too controlled and poker-faced, and while the rhythms were precise, they didn’t have the crackle or idiomatic syncopation that Leonard Bernstein or Alfred Newman could bring. The atmosphere changed immediately when principal trumpeter Philip Smith entered with the bluesy melody that defines the work’s central section; finally, the music seemed tuned into the mood, as did much of the final section marked by the ‘swing’ tune, again introduced by the trumpet, redolent of both Parisian ‘le hot jazz’ and Harlem. And one could hear the influence on the work’s orchestration not only of Ravel but also the Stravinsky of Petrushka. The players seemed to be far more visibly engaged for this section, and it was indeed impressive and idiomatic.