New York Philharmonic/Gergiev – Stravinsky

Symphony in C
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra
Petrushka [1911 version]

Denis Matsuev (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 5 May, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThe 15,000th performance of the New York Philharmonic was the perfect occasion to celebrate the orchestra, and to kick off a fundraising campaign. A big red banner adorned the outside of Avery Fisher Hall, the audience was photographed (to be posted on the web), and there were the inevitable speeches. Music Director Alan Gilbert read a brief statement, and a representative from Credit Suisse was on hand to announce the company’s commitment to another three years of sponsorship. To entice patrons to match a new grant of $750,000 by the Board of Directors, the orchestra’s chairman, Gary W. Parr, gave a charming account of the Philharmonic’s first concert in 1842 under founding conductor Ureli Corelli Hill. A subscription ticket was 83 cents then, equivalent in buying power to about $22.50 now, the musicians, except for the cellos, were playing standing in front of candle-lit music-stands, and they introduced their audience to a work never heard in New York before – Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Denis Matsuev14,999 performances later, another unfamiliar piece was on the program, Stravinsky’s rarely performed Capriccio. Denis Matsuev, the winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in his New York Philharmonic debut, quickly made one wonder why it has not become a staple of the repertoire. Playing with confidence, technical brilliance and great flair, the young Russian made the piece sparkle, glitter, and dance, especially in the jazzy finale. After a prolonged ovation, he also showed his more lyrical side with a sensitive and whimsical account of Liadov’s Musical Snuff Box. String principals (principal associate concertmaster Cheryl Staples, violist Cynthia Phelps, cellist Carter Brey and double bassist Eugene Levinson) distinguished themselves as a concertino, and Valery Gergiev provided an adequate orchestral accompaniment, but nothing more. Matsuev was the one to generate all the excitement, until the conductor finally seemed to catch on to it in the finale.

Symphony in C, which had opened the concert, similarly featured wonderful solo playing, most notably the oboes in the second movement and the brass in the third, but it suffered from the same lack of involvement on Gergiev’s part. Although he negotiated the technical intricacies of the Allegretto well and the orchestra never went below its expected level of play, it still felt as if this was just a reading through the piece, without any definition or discernible viewpoint.

Maybe this speaks to the concept of this festival, seven different programs (with some overlap) in three weeks, with one conductor and one orchestra. In an interview with Joseph Horowitz at the Pierpont Morgan Library, Gergiev mentioned repeatedly how elusive “Oedipus Rex” had been for him. Ironically, as someone growing up in the Soviet Union, he also was less exposed to the music of “The Russian Stravinsky” than his Western contemporaries, except for the famous trio of ballet scores. And how many works, especially those less often performed, can a conductor really internalize and commit to – and properly rehearse – when they are crammed together into such a short time-span?

The advertising campaign touted Gergiev as a maestro of “superhuman energy”, as if this were a sporting event. Shouldn’t one rather strive for “superior musical insight”, or “superb music making”? As tired as conductor and orchestra must have been at this stage of the festival, in the concluding Petrushka they showed that this was still within their grasp in a work they all know well and have been living with for many years. Gergiev is first and foremost a man of the theatre, and in his talk he mentioned that he sees dancers, scenes, or specific costumes even when he is conducting Stravinsky’s ballet scores in a concert. With trumpeter Philip Smith and pianist Eric Huebner as outstanding soloists, this vivid, colorful performance, each tableau characterized in great detail, just about made the audience see them as well.

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