New York Philharmonic/Andrew Davis – 2 January

A Quick Blast, for Wind, Brass and Percussion [U.S. premiere]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.6 in D, Op.60

Joshua Bell (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 2 January, 2004
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

A new year, a new centennial. Having only recently finished honoring Hector Berlioz in 2003, the New York Philharmonic has already started looking at Antonín Dvorák, who died in 1904. The first Philharmonic event in this Dvorák centenary presented the Czech composer’s Sixth Symphony together with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto featuring Joshua Bell and the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Quick Blast. In keeping with the celebratory spirit of the holiday season and the centennial, the concert was an eminently enjoyable crowd-pleaser.

The program opened with Turnage’s A Quick Blast, an orchestral showpiece scored for large, colorful groupings of winds, brass and percussion. The title of the piece is misleading. In contrast to the explosion of force and loud noise the title leads one to expect, the music of this vibrant ten-minute piece is more compact, subtle and complex. The first part of a trilogy, Etudes and Elegies, composed for the BBC Symphony from 2000 through 2002, the work displays typical Turnage virtuosity and comes across as a high-spirited prelude to a longer and weightier work. Following a traditional fast-slow-fast pattern, the piece’s vigorous pulsating rhythms contrast with the more lyrical interludes of the slow section. The orchestra clearly enjoyed the opportunity to show off, and the playing was especially impressive in the haunting wind solos and the punchier brass motifs.

In his reading of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Joshua Bell combined seemingly effortless virtuosity with warm, expressive feeling. While not totally lacking in sentimentality, Bell’s performance, no doubt inspired by the fresh and dramatic accompaniment provided by the Philharmonic musicians under Davis, displayed both discipline and spontaneity. In the both the cadenza and the second movement Canzonetta, the violinist displayed a compelling intensity that seemed to breathe new life into this well-known music. At the end of the piece, the sold-out house leaped to its feet, a reflection of both the composition itself and the performance it received.

As is the case with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the vital elements of Dvorák’s Sixth Symphony are song and dance. A devoted patriot, Dvorák created symphonies rich in folk melody and Slavic passion, and his Sixth is no exception. One of the most individual and instantly recognisable voices in Romantic music, Dvorák nevertheless displays an abiding influence of Brahms and Schubert, which was especially apparent in this performance. Throughout the first two movements, so rich in Brahmsian and Schubertian overtones, I felt Davis was restraining the orchestra and not allowing the symphony to fully expand and express the individuality of the writing. The playing came across as overly subdued, and it wasn’t until the third movement, the Scherzo (Furiant), in which Dvorák gives full voice to his national sentiment, that the energy and vitality of the music became truly apparent. The finale was thrilling, with Davis making the most of the lavish and engaging themes.

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