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Answering The Unanswered Question

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
09/30/2009 -  & October 1, 2, 2009
Magnus Lindberg: Expo
Charles Ives: Symphony No. 2 – The Unanswered Question
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58

Emanuel Ax (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Musical Director and Conductor)

Emanuel Ax (© Yu Yu)

That cranky Yankee Charles Ives probably thought that by titling a work The Unanswered Question, without posing what the question ever was, nobody would be able to answer it. For exactly one century, orchestras played this, Ives’ most popular work, but only last night did conductor Alan Gilbert actually give an answer to the transcendental question.

More about that later. Mr. Gilbert already has established a certain routine in his concerts. Starting two weeks ago with the Messiaen song cycle, continuing with composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg, and going onto the two Ives works tonight, he is certainly bringing New York’s conservative audiences into….well, the end of the last century.

Last night, he began with a work from the opening night, Mr. Lindberg’s Expo, with the extra attraction of the conductor interviewing the composer before it began. While this turns the concert hall into a music appreciation class (and deletes from the composing mystique itself), personable Mr. Lindberg did give an insight into a display piece for the orchestra which actually speaks for itself. Expo will hardly go into his “Magnum Magnus Opus” catalogue, but Mr. Gilbert showed off the Phil well enough.

That wasn’t true with the Ives Second Symphony, a throwback hybrid to Johannes Brahms–and Stephen Foster. Outside of Bernstein, I can’t think of any conductor who can balance the two. Some Ives music, like Concord Sonata and the Fourth Symphony can jump out, can terrify, petrify, be funny and surprising at once. The Second Symphony, though, skirts over the sentimental, and can easily fall into the swamp of bathetic.

Mr. Gilbert rarely gave it the warmth if deserved. The opening was warm and fuzzy, the second movement drifted along, the Foster melodies (Ol’ Black Joe and Camptown Races jutting out anachronistically), and on the finale, with its bugle tattoo and discordant ending, did finally show climax and fun.

After the intermission, Mr. Gilbert essayed The Unanswered Question, with few frills. Unlike the Orpheus Orchestra last year, which spread the forces offstage into a second balcony and at the back of Carnegie Hall, Mr. Gilbert put the wind quartet in a balcony, but the rest of the orchestra–with a haunting trumpet by Philip Smith–was placed firmly on the stage.

But here was the surprise. The program warned that “no pause” would be between the end of the Ives and the beginning of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. So Emanuel Ax sat at the Steinway, the New York Phil faded into the closing tone cluster of Question, and immediately, Mr. Ax replied, with that quiet cantabile in a comfortable G major.

So that was the answer. Ives, who revered only Beethoven, might have approved. It certainly worked here, since the mystery of the Ives was transformed into the spiritual of the Beethoven.

More important. Mr. Ax brought the orchestra to life again. His Fourth was played with grace, elegance, and a joy in the sounds themselves. We have all heard pianists play this with a bland simplicity where nothing happens except the notes. Mr. Ax, though, sees this piece–which he will be playing in Vietnam next month–as a three-movement jewel, which cut with reserved passion and polished with lapidary finesse.

Harry Rolnick



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