Don Juan, Op.20
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Liang Wang (oboe)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 15 November, 2013
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
The New York Philharmonic’s scintillating performance of Don Juan, conducted by Alan Gilbert, made the clearest possible statement of what a great orchestra this is. Each section was in top form: strings rich in tone and in perfect unison, woodwinds remarkably clear, brass affording powerful, solid support, and percussion providing both rhythmic propulsion and glorious highlights. The horns’ robust portrayal of the Don contrasted with gorgeous oboe solos by Liang Wang and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow representing the roué’s romantic conquests. It was Dicterow who, when asked what he would like to play before his retirement at the end of this season, chose these two Richard Strauss tone poems, but music director Gilbert obviously shares his affection for Don Juan – he led a finely crafted and spirited performance that generated extraordinary sounds. (Dicterow plays in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, on December 12, 13 and 14.)
The orchestra also excelled in support of Liang Wang in the Oboe Concerto by Christopher Rouse, the Philharmonic’s current composer-in-residence. It was composed in 2004 on commission from the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered there in 2009. Its New York debut the following year was postponed due to a blizzard until these current performances. Rouse requires the oboist to execute virtually every technique of which the instrument is capable. Wang met this challenge with agility. The composer aptly characterizes this score as among his “genial” works, although it exploits the oboe’s plaintive character in melodic passages that push the soloist to near-breathless limits. An opening five-note string chord generates much of the ensuing thematic material, which often flies by rapidly, although the middle of the three continuously played movements does slow the pace to yield lyrical qualities. Rouse elicits diverse and interesting timbres and rhythms. There were raucous horns, strong drumbeats and booming brass; and gentle strings, winds and celesta in softer ones, with lots of interjections from percussion.
The concert ended with Also sprach Zarathustra. Its opening section – made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey – could be felt viscerally through the soft, low rumbling organ, contrabassoon and double basses, and bass drum tremolos, and the brilliance of the trumpets and overall power made for a shattering early climax. Gilbert and the Philharmonic brought out a wide range of colors, textures and patterns, each episode identified by an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s eponymous treatise, although any real connection to the philosopher’s narrative is difficult, if not impossible, to discern from the music itself. Dicterow again excelled, both in poetic solos and with other string principals, and there were other notable contributions. Gilbert’s careful control was especially effective in ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ (Of Science), which built up gradually from the depths of the orchestra, finally bursting through into the dynamic fugal beginning of ‘Der Genesende’ (The Convalescent). The concluding ‘Das Nachtwanderlied’ (Night Wanderer’s Song) ended with shimmering tones on flute and piccolo and ppp pizzicatos on cellos and double basses.